Burglar alarms signal theft of more than just objects


I wake most mornings to the squeal of the motion detector on the first floor as it catches the top of my 10-year-old son's head. He's always up first.

He is expert with the code numbers that every teen-age sitter in town now knows, and he silences the high-pitched beep quickly and heads for his cartoons.

At night, my daughter will not go to bed until she sees for herself the gleaming red eye that tells her the house is locked and safe. If my late-arriving husband wakes her with his good-night kisses, she murmurs from her sleep, "Is the burglar alarm on?"

We have a security system. So do most of our neighbors. The plastic signs -- "ABC Security," "Protective Security," "Brinks Security -- sprouted like sunflowers in the front yards of our neighborhood last summer.

More than 60 break-ins in a five-block area in less than three months. Nobody hurt. Mostly purses and briefcases snatched from the kitchen after windows and sliding glass doors were popped open.

Though we were one of the first to install that glowing, beeping key pad by the front door, we did not overreact. It took three break-ins before we did it.

The first time, my purse was stolen from the kitchen counter. Inside was a roll of film containing pictures from my son's first three months of life.

Someone broke in again while I was in the hospital giving birth to my daughter. Stole my mother-in-law's purse this time. It held her rosary blessed by the pope, my father-in-law's heart medicine and her diamond wedding rings. She replaced the rings, but said later that the new ones felt to her like costume jewelry.

There were a few bucks in each one of those purses, but not much more than pizza money for the teen-age marauders the police suspected but could never apprehend. The rosary, the rings and the roll of film would mean nothing to anyone but Grandma and me.

Security sirens blare daily in our neighborhood. Most are accidentally triggered and quickly doused. My neighbor's explodes into noise so often that my son has volunteered to show him how it works. His wife says it goes off every time she plugs in the vacuum cleaner.

Ours is connected to the police station, and a dispatcher calls immediately to see if it is a false alarm. You have to tell the dispatcher the confidential three-digit code -- so they know a burglar doesn't have a gun to your head, the security system salesman said -- but once, my husband couldn't remember it.

The police had arrived, and he was starting to sweat when the officer said, "Look inside the cupboard door next to the phone. Most people put it there." That's where it was. "I felt like an idiot," he said.

The fact of our security system doesn't frighten my kids. It is second nature to them. Jessie knew the arming code before she knew her phone number.

But the epidemic of burglaries that are as much a part of summer nights as catching fireflies worries them quite a bit. Each has a friend who has wakened to find the screen on the first-floor window cut out. Some nights, Jessie hides her favorite necklace under her socks.

Small towns and suburbs were where we went to get away from the crime of the cities. But it has followed us there, traveling on our expressways and, yes, our light rail systems, and preying on our naivete.

An astonishing number of purses were snatched from neighbors who left their sliding glass doors open to night breezes, police told us.

There have been more than 7 million security systems installed in homes in an explosion of fearfulness since 1986. New home buyers used to ask for fancy decks. Now, they want security systems.

When we shut the door and turn on that alarm, we turn off whatever sense of community we have. That doesn't frighten me as much as the thought of a stranger in my kitchen, but it frightens me in a different way.

The blinking red and green lights remind my children daily that there are bad guys out there. But it also sends the message that if you arm your system, you are safe. You are not safe. Not until all your neighbors are safe.

When the guys from the neighborhood association called and asked my husband if he would help patrol the streets, he collected his flashlights and went out into the dark. The kids knew where he was going and what he was doing.

Even so, before she went to sleep, Jessie asked, "Is the alarm on?"

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