The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

THE SPECTER OF CRIME IN THE STREETS: Crime is down here in our happy little burg, if you can believe what you read in the newspapers. That is usually a dangerous thing to do, I know, but in this case what I read in the papers and what I see around me every day seem to coincide: crime really is going down. Of course, the crime rate here in our happy little burg was never that high to begin with; we are a fairly law-abiding place, with our mountains and the river serving us in the office of a wall against the envy of less happy little burgs. We have a few troublemakers and congenital miscreants, and what small place does not have their quota of such riff and raff, but they are no more active than they need to be and the local constables know them all by name, and so they do little more than supply the police blotter of our local weekly newspaper with plenty of copy and be a source of permanent embarrassment to their family and friends. So the average citizen here should not be surprised when he sees the chief of police trumpeting the good news as if the Messiah had arrived in Jerusalem and was taking reservations for dinner and dancing at that city’s finest hotel, but we should take his claims that the drop is the result of his new crime-fighting strategies with more than the usual amount of salt reserved for such announcements. The truth of the matter is that the chief’s new crime-fighting strategies have had little or nothing to do with the drop in crime here; his fiscal policies, on the other hand, have had a lot to do with it. That’s because the chief shops at Target.

The success of Target’s private security force in solving crimes is gaining a great deal of notice in the media these days, especially since the retail giant has helped numerous local police departments throughout the country with their investigations. The ability of Target’s undercover operatives to spot a shoplifter at seventy-five yards is nothing short of uncanny and their ability to perform surveillance on everything that goes on in their stores, everything that goes on in their parking lots, and everything that goes on in the homes of anyone who has ever bought anything at Target is nothing less than astounding, as well as being a great asset to local law enforcement agencies who would not otherwise be able to perform such surveillance themselves.

As a result of the demand for Target’s services, other retailers are now trying to get into the market. Sears has already announced that they will be providing a full range of investigative services next year, including homicide and armed robbery investigations. Macy’s is already in the crime market with a full product line of specialty investigations that emphasize crimes committed during the January white sales. But as yet, despite the interest and the example of Target, Sears, and Macy’s, most retailers are eying the crime market cautiously. Bloomingdales, for example, planned to get into white collar crime, stock fraud, and real estate fraud early next year, but after a board meeting late last year the chairman put those plans on hold; an in-house study showed that investigating and convicting people responsible for these crimes would cut sharply into Bloomingdale’s corps of loyal New York City customers and so the chairman of the board dropped the whole idea pending further thought. For most retailers, however, the whole question of this market comes down to what Wal-Mart intends to do.

At the moment, no one can say if America’s largest retailer has any immediate plans to enter the crime market; the corporation is not saying much about the subject one way or the other, which is disquieting for other, smaller retailers. No one wants to spend the money needed to make a play for a share of this market if Wal-mart intends to get into law enforcement in a big way, so faced with the frightening prospect of the biggest kid on the block taking away their market share, many smaller retailers are developing specialty crime-fighting skills in order to dominate niche markets that Wal-mart and the other large retailers may overlook. Filene’s, for example, is looking for opportunities in stock fraud and prostitution, Barnes & Noble has already moved quietly into bank robbery and arson for hire, and the deli where I buy my lunch everyday is setting up its own coroner’s unit, which reminds me that I should avoid buying their roast pork sandwiches—there’s no telling what’s going into those sandwiches these days.

Still, the introduction of market forces into a traditionally public sector area cannot help but drive down crime as it becomes more profitable to solve crimes than commit them. Given that there will always be a certain demand for these services, human nature being what it is, companies that make the plunge into this market should never fear that they will lose their shirts entirely even if Wal-mart decides to get into the market; there is enough business here for everyone, it seems.


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