Changing the way we look at UTM’s laptop thieves

Questioning the approach on avoidance over resolving root causes of criminal behaviour

Every hour at the UTM library, students will hear an announcement—the same announcement. It’s a reminder that there have been reported laptop thefts, and that students should be aware and take care of their belongings. Scattered around the library, students will see little blue pieces of paper on the study desks that read, “Avoid thefts. Keep your belongings with you at all times.” Students will also notice an increase in the presence of campus police who wander the library floors. The fourth floor has been known to be the ultimate theft spot. Don’t leave your things, not even for a second to use the bathroom, because someone will steal them.

I have started to live in fear of having my precious belongings stolen at any moment I blink. I wonder if there is a group of people who are somehow profiting over the thefts, or if each incident is completely isolated from the others. I wonder if one theft leads to a domino effect of other thefts. I wonder if it is my fellow UTM students who are stealing or if they are outsiders taking advantage of our comfortable space. All these thoughts, and still no one has an answer. The only thing that we know how to do is encourage people to take care of their things.

We are encouraging avoidance. It makes sense, because it can be quite difficult to pinpoint the root of the thefts. With nearly every student walking in and out of the library with a laptop in their backpack, how are we supposed to know who the culprits are? Surely, they have figured out ways to be inconspicuous and have therefore been successful. It’s not like anyone wants to set up a laptop and stand off to the side and wait for it to be stolen so they can confront them. So, we do what we know best, and encourage the unaffected to avoid the situation that leads them to be victims.

This sounds all too familiar. With other, usually more serious crimes—such as sexual assault, fraud, or violent activities— the perpetrator is the one that is primarily at fault. In these crimes, we usually put the culprits on trial, frown upon their actions, and encourage victims that it’s not their fault that they ended up in that situation, and that it could happen to anyone. Why do we only do this for “serious” crimes?

There have been a number of cases where people with strong opinions say that the victims “bring it upon themselves.” Some turn a stinky eye to the people who dress certain ways and say “they’re asking for it.” I personally believe this is ridiculous. Even if you follow all the unwritten rules, there’s still a chance you could be a victim in a variety of situations. Encouraging avoidance is definitely the first, obvious, step, but it doesn’t do anything about the source of the problem—the culprits. If we understand this, and can mutually agree that in order to break criminal culture we have to first look at young children and teach them what is acceptable versus not, then why don’t we do this for everything else?

Why do we encourage potential victims to protect themselves instead of working on the ways in which we can change the root of the problem? We should be looking at the culprits, not so much the unaffected potential victims, and trying to avoid the creation of new criminals. In an article titled “Explanation or Excuses for Stealing?” by Dr. Stanton Samenow on Psychology Today, we can see that thieves may actually be struggling with a mental illness. “Kleptomania” refers to a condition where an individual “experiences a consistent impulse to steal items not needed for personal use or monetary value.” Stealing in this case might be a coping method for depression or as a way to boost self-esteem. While the struggle with mental health can be a valid point, it’s something that can be supported in alternative ways.

If our laptop thieves are not people who steal simply as a coping method, but rather for their own benefits—whether it be to make money or to have the luxury of a device—then that’s a problem we can learn to address. I’m not saying it will solve the problem, nor that it will even be successful, but if we can make the effort to encourage students to protect their belongings, we can also make the effort to remind students that stealing is not the solution. There can be reminders about financial aid, contests that reward students, some sort of resource for affordable items, an initiative to help students in need so that they don’t feel that stealing is the only way for them to get what they need.

This is the first step to changing the way we deal with issues such as theft in our community.