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What Is Responsible Fear?

The 2013 edition of the annual October fright fest is behind us and the kiddies (and their candy-pilfering parents – c’mon, we know you steal from their stash while the little goblins sleep) sugargasms are fading into memory.  Bits of shattered Jack O’Lantern rot in the streets, as the soggy remnants of beautifully orchestrated toilet paper attacks flap amidst the treetops.  Halloween is behind us and we turn our eyes toward the annual November feeding frenzy of Thanksgiving. 

Halloween is one of those strange “pseudo-holidays” people either really, REALLY get into or barely acknowledge.  Those with young kids, even if they occupied the “barely acknowledge” camp before having children and will gladly return to once their kids graduate the trick-or-treating age in favor of the acts-of-petty-vandalism phase, are kind of forced to partake.  Unless, of course, they happen to be in the Halloween-is-a-pagan-celebration-of-the-devil-and-MY-kids’ll-never-take-part-in-such-an-evil-ritual killjoy camp (we eagerly await your angry emails!).  For most of us Halloween is about (generally) good-natured fun with little real fright, except for the type manufactured in the minds of anxious parents, generated from years of overhyped risks that, truth-be-told, never really existed.

For decades we’ve heard the stories:  razor blades, pins, and poison inserted into unsuspecting children’s candy; pedophiles roaming the streets or lurking behind deceptive facades, taking advantage of the night for their own twisted desires; child haters spilling their rage on the quintessential night of fun for the youngest of us.  And for nearly as long, we’ve seen the reaction:  the PSAs and nightly news stories where the local police chief or PIO urges parents to examine each piece of candy for tampering, and discard anything homemade lest it be laced with arsenic; hospitals offering free X-Rays of candy to ferret out hidden dangers; and most recently, increased scrutiny of, and passage of increasingly strict laws regulating, the actions of and limits on registered sex offenders on or about Halloween with parents being advised to check local sex offender registries prior to trick-or-treating.  For some parents it’s no wonder Halloween is such an anxiety-producing time, or that they’ve taken to hypervigilance and the creation of strictly monitored, alternative celebrations to ease their fears. 

But was Halloween ever so dangerous in the first place?  Recent studies very strongly suggest not.  Fears of razor blades and poison in candy date back to the 70s, but actual cases of contaminated treats being found are exceedingly rare and isolated, and researchers have been unable to find even a single substantiated death caused by such tampering.  One wonders if even those rare cases of tampering that were discovered resulted in later fear, or were inspired by existing fear and media hype.  One recent study even examined child sex crime rates on Halloween in 30 states over a seven year period and found… no significant difference than any other time of year.  It turns out Halloween is one of the LEAST evil days of the year!  Who woulda thunk?

That doesn’t mean Halloween is SAFE.  It’s still quite dangerous for children, just not in the way most parents think.  Typically, four times as many pedestrian deaths occur on Halloween than any other day and this only makes sense; young children, excited and often moving in packs, roam about the dark and dart into streets while forgetting the safety lessons they’ve been taught.  This usually happens during rush hour and while drivers are either taking their own kids out or making their way to parties.  Perhaps the fears, warnings, and attention should be distributed a little differently. 

Halloween fears and their law enforcement applications

So what do the fears of freaked out parents have to do with our world?  If you’re a local cop you’ve probably responded to countless calls from these same parents fearful of unfamiliar strangers parked near schools or on the street near where children play, convinced of the worst.  Almost always the fears are unfounded, the strangers intentions purely innocent.  After a while we roll our eyes while dutifully responding, FI the contact, reassure the p’s, and move on.  Every so often, however, the fears are justified and suspicions well-placed and we’re glad someone followed their instincts and picked up the phone.

But we also know “stranger danger” is greatly overrated and real threats come from within and unexpectedly:  Sex abuse is most often at the hands of a known and trusted adult; predators lurk the internet and lure children seemingly safe and alone in their own bedrooms; bullies lay verbal body blows on peers that whittle away at their emotional and physical health in class, on the playground, and online; the lure of hard drugs even the most stoned 60s hippie knew to avoid now crush lives right and left.  And by the time these threats are realized they’ve already done their damage to the surprise and horror of the unsuspecting parents.

Now think about our own world of policing.  We think (and worry) about, train, and strategize for the sudden, violent encounter.  We study and armchair quarterback mass shootings, barricaded subjects and hostage situations, and how we’ll approach high-risk calls.  We need to do this; those high-risk, low occurrence events truly pose significant danger and failure to think, train, and strategize breeds complacency.  But while we stand vigilant against such extreme incidents – and some of us too often slip into hypervigilance – we frequently lose sight of other, less dramatic but no less dangerous threats.

As you train for deadly force encounters, confronting multiple assailants, and active shooters – focusing on keeping yourself, your colleagues, and the innocent safe – do you give equal thought to what you eat every day?  To exercise and flexibility?  To keeping your mind alert and supple?  We all talk a great game about officer safety, going home at the end of each shift, and survival over the length of a career.  Yet so many of us subsist on fast food and other highly processed meals to get us through our day, let slip the fitness regimes that led us to and through the academy, and fall into comfortable patterns that feel safe but offer little in the way of intellectual growth and novel experiences.  Do we ever think about the toll this takes?  

We concern ourselves with off-duty threats and how we’ll protect our families when we’re out in a world of danger, but do we stop to think how the job, the constant hypervigilance, and the “us vs them” mentality so many of us allow to define our worlds might damage our relationships and the psyches of those we love the most over time? 

These are concerns and questions most cops never give much thought to, but we should.  The world around us can be dangerous, true, but the world we inadvertently create might be even more so.  Something to think about.