This Atlantic article describes how home surveillance cameras have helped catch thieves who steal packages – predominantly Amazon packages – from porches in a San Francisco neighborhood. The attitude of the author is somewhat ambiguous, but as best I can determine she seems to lean slightly more towards sympathy with the thieves (in particular one thief who is described at great length) than with the victims of the crimes.

For example:

While porch cams have been used to investigate cases as serious as homicides, the surveillance and neighborhood social networking typically make a particular type of crime especially visible: those lower-level ones happening out in public, committed by the poorest. Despite the much higher cost of white-collar crime, it seems to cause less societal hand-wringing than what might be caught on a Ring camera…

In Potrero, Fairley had been captured on camera enough times, snatching packages or walking down the street with bundles of mail, that many in the neighborhood had a face and a name to attach to their generalized anger about ongoing nuisances. Fairley was correct in thinking that, in many cases, Amazon will replace pilfered packages. Her major miscalculation was in thinking that her neighbors would, therefore, just shrug and move on.

It’s hard to convey the flavor of the article without quoting at great length from it, but the general feeling I got was that stealing Amazon stuff from rich people’s (or middle-class people’s) porches is upsetting and wrong, but no biggie! We can also forgive the poor drug addicts (particularly if from minority groups) because it’s poverty and addiction that drives them.

The other sense the article conveys is how well Fairley (the porch thief featured in the article) plays the game of self-justification. She minimizes her offenses and plays the race card with great frequency. Here’s a sample:

Arnold began combining the neighbors’ Fairley-related posts in a single document. They started with the first dispatch, from May 2017, with Margett photographing Fairley and her daughter. In October of that year, a friend of Arnold’s, then a VP at Flipboard, followed Fairley in his Prius, watching her go door to door collecting packages—a mail carrier in reverse. In November, a cam caught a lithe woman who looked like Fairley crawling up a home’s steps to seize a fat Amazon pouch of lug nuts, a rosary dangling from her neck. Two weeks later, neighbors were gardening on a shared strip of land when Fairley passed by balancing a long lamp box on her shoulder. (Fairley claimed that the box contained her own headboard and lampshade.) Seeing an address written in big letters for a home in the opposite direction, one of them grabbed the box and demanded to see an ID to prove Fairley lived there. A second man called 911 as a woman videoed Fairley’s ensuing tirade: “That’s why people get shot. You don’t pull somebody’s package off their fucking arm,” Fairley snapped, then stalked off.

And then there’s the failure of San Francisco’s legal system as well as the system to treat addiction (although of course the situation is not limited to that city):

…Fairley regularly skipped her hearings—she’d lose track of the dates, she later told me, and just had “a lot going on”—which slowed the process of resolving the cases. Again and again, in her absence, the judge would issue bench warrants, and Fairley would eventually be arrested and booked into jail, from which the judge would release her to await her next hearing, with demands that she report to diversion programs or Narcotics Anonymous meetings—all while neighbors continued to report on Nextdoor that they were watching her steal mail.

Fairley is given many chances in many rehab programs, all of which she manages to flunk. Then, as her life spirals down from an already-low point, she loses more and more: her possessions, her public housing, her daughter. At no point does she show any inclination to take responsibility for her situation.

It’s hard to imagine any good ending to Fairley’s story; her problems seem deep-seated and intractable, her way of life ingrained and habitual. What percentage of petty criminals resembles Fairley? How many are capable of change and how many strongly resistant to it?

Would more prison time have made a difference in Fairley’s trajectory? At the very least, it would have sent her a different message and would have given the residents of the Portrero neighborhood a break from her thievery.

Or would it have? As this depressing article also makes clear, even when Fairley was unable to make her rounds because she was in rehab programs, other thieves took up the slack and kept stealing the low-hanging fruit – the Amazon packages – from the porches of Portrero.

[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]


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