October 30, 2009

Halloween "security theater" endures

Ho-hum. Another Halloween, another senseless roundup of sex offenders. This is the third year in a row that I have posted about the sex offender hysteria on All Hallows Eve that seems completely impervious to logic, common sense, and -- now -- even research.

What's new this year is that a Florida professor has done the empirical research to prove what people in the field already knew: Sex offenders aren't out snatching and molesting children on Halloween.

Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University, studied a 9-year period and found no spikes in sex crimes against children on Halloween. Her study was just published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment.

"The wide net cast by Halloween laws places some degree of burden on law enforcement officers whose time would otherwise be allocated to addressing more probably dangerous events," Levenson noted.

Unfortunately, her research seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Last year, when some of the sillier Halloween restrictions were ridiculed by late-night TV pundits and at least one was struck down by a U.S. district judge as overly broad, I naively thought the pendulum might be swinging. But even studies by experts such as Dr. Levenson seem incapable of bringing common sense to bear. Probation officers and others are continuing to implement ridiculous roundups and other once-a-year restrictions on sex offenders, instead of focusing on the real threat to children, which I'll get to in a moment.

Around the nation this year, more parole and probation officers than ever are ordering convicted sex offenders not to answer their doors, decorate their porches, or wear costumes on Halloween. More sex offenders are being ordered to post "NO CANDY HERE" signs on their doors. Others are being required to attend special Halloween "counseling sessions" or "movie nights" where they will be monitored (and, incidentally, protected from false accusations). The restrictions are so widespread and so varied that I no longer have the time or energy to catalog them as I have done in the past. If you are interested, just do a Google news search for "Halloween sex offender roundup."

The farcical crackdowns are a prime example of what Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast has labeled "security theater," that is, "hyping (and pretending to solve) a threat that in reality is extremely remote, even to the point of diverting resources from policing activities like DWI enforcement that would protect more people and save more lives."

Why Halloween, we might ask? After all, most sex offenders target people they know, not children off the street. And the crackdowns on registered sex offenders miss the mark anyway, because the broad majority of new sex offenses are committed by men who have never been caught for a past sex offense. Furthermore, registered sex offenders feel so branded and ostracized that most are ducking and hiding today.

But the scare plays off of a deep-rooted cultural fear of the bogeyman stranger, as memorialized in the timeworn Halloween legend of tainted candy, which has endured despite myriad attempts at correction. As Benjamin Radford of the Skeptical Enquirer pointed out a few years ago about the persistence of that stranger-danger myth: "Despite e-mail warnings, scary stories, and Ann Landers columns to the contrary, there have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents."

The sad part of both myths is that children are taught a message of fear: Strangers, or even their own neighbors, might try to poison or molest them.

Oh, yes. What is the real danger facing children this Halloween? It's one your mama always warned you about: Getting hit by a speeding car while crossing a dark street. Car accidents kill about 8,000 children every year in the United States, and children are more than twice as likely to be killed by a car while walking on Halloween night than at any other time of the year.

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Photo credit: Kaushik Gopal (Creative Commons license)


Neuroskeptic said...

How bizarre. Scare make-believe dangers on halloween - you couldn't make it up.

Is this really "security theatre" though? Presumably most of the people instituting such measures really believe it's protecting children. It sounds to me like the main story here is how law enforcement / child protection is so often driven by knee-jerk "common sense" thinking rather than any kind of evidence.

sandihr said...

This is a very well written and factual article. This is the first Halloween that I have been in the sex offender "loop," and I have become more and more amazed with every letter, posting, and article about the restrictions placed on Halloween. This probably ranks right up there with the enforcement of inclusive sex registries and court-mandated "therapy" sessions as ways to totally waste community resources while making the public believe that these ridiculous programs actually make them safe. Yes, parents, your children are much, much more at risk from speeding cars and from someone who lives in or frequently visits your home than they are from the evil stranger luring them in with carved pumpkins and candy. If you doubt this, please go to the sites and studies cited in Dr. Franklin's article and read the research for yourselves. Shelomith Stow

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Neuroskeptic: You are certainly correct that many of the public servants implementing these policies think they are protecting children, and have not considered whether the evidence supports their approaches. I think they are partly driven by fear, too. What would happen to them if one of "their" sex offenders was accused of doing something – no matter how trivial – on Halloween? They fear losing their jobs and being vilified in the media. (Think of what Phillip Garrido’s parole agent must be going through.)

In using the term "security theater" I am trying to touch on the larger issue: We have dramatic productions aimed at reassuring the public that children are safe, while under the radar hundreds of thousands of children are being abused and/or neglected at home, and many more are being permanently damaged by the defunding of the public schools and the health care system. (Plus, on Halloween, we've got kids getting run over and, less seriously, eating candy that gives them cavities and contributes to the obesity epidemic.) Public displays of pseudo-protection are simplistic, cost little, and – for politicians – are a great way to get votes without addressing the real roots of the problem.

DJ Fatima said...

I really like the analogy of the theater. Halloween is a theater and exaggeration of death, danger, gore and the fear of the old "boogeyman".

Sex offender hysteria is much the same thing, the fear of the danger and the overwhelming emphasis on stranger danger and the enforcement and security control to ensure the "boogeyman" doesn't take advantage of halloween night.

When the reality is far from the truth. All that money is misspent. Overwhelmingly the majority of Sex offenders are family members, or known to the families of victims. Not predators roaming the street looking for children to prey on. Sure they do exist, but they are in the minority. The vast majority are hidden away in families or know the victims in some way. Unfortunately the majority of the public are uneducated about who the real boogeyman is, and that also includes many politicians. It makes for easier policy to address the stranger danger, instead of addressing the real concerns, of poverty, lack of education, training, health etc

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

DJ Fatima: The theater analogy can be applied to other security theaters as well. Consider the airports, with their silly color-coded threat levels. The stated goal is to "protect us from terrorism," but in reality they amp up public anxiety and promote a siege mentality without addressing the causes of terrorism.

DJ Fatima said...

Understand completely the issues that you speak about. I am a forensic psychologist practising in Australia. We have yet to achieved that kind of hysteria that the US has over terrorism, we are hot on your tails. Immigration (boat peopl) is another area where you analogy of the theater can be applied. The fear of boats loads of terrorists arriving on leaky boats, just ready and willing to blow up the nearest building. Whils ignoring the reality that the majority of potential terrorists are well educated nationals, groups of dissafected youths.

I also responded to your post (October 22nd) on the jury expert- "the effect of graphic evidence", as my thesis research examined the effects of gruesome evidence on jury decision making in a criminal trial.

Family soldier said...

Mandatory meetings for SO's on Halloween night - what a farce for the law to do this so they'll look like they're doing something to protect society. Jill Levenson's PhD. study shows statistically SO crimes are not a problem on Halloween.