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Unwanted Attention: A Downside of Public Criminology

Last week I had a piece (with Lorna Ferguson) come out in an online media outlet and I was pretty satisfied with the response. Two days later, my email showed someone had left a voice message from my university phone line. Since only media ever leave me voice messages there, I interrupted my relaxing day out in the country to listen to the message. It was from a man - self-identified as Dr. XXXXX - who politely congratulated me on the article and asked me to call him back on his cell phone to discuss police reform. I deleted the message. Why?


A long time ago I read a book by a security expert, Gavin de Becker. The Gift of Fear lays out some of the ways in which people who prey on others use both subtle and overt manipulation based on normal social cues and social fears to get people to ignore their intuitions about potentially dangerous individuals and situations. I now try to listen and respect my intuitions instead of over-riding them. In this case, the situation involves:


1. a stranger who wouldn't tell me his full name

2. a stranger who wanted me to call him to discuss something vague

3. a stranger who flashed 'academic credentials' to get me to view him as a peer and colleague (even though he has zero expertise in my field and being a 'colleague' doesn't make you any more trustworthy)

4. brought up his alumni status at my university so we would presumably have a common bond and/or as subtly signalling his right to my attention now.


Social conditioning pressures individuals into being 'nice', even when others are presuming on your time, your expertise, your space, your energy. When someone crosses your boundaries, or makes you uncomfortable, de Becker tells us, you can and should ignore them. I hit delete.


Fast forward to Monday and phone message number 2. Basically, message 2 is a repeat of #1 with a twist: 'I called you but you didn't return my called.’ Implied: which a nice person would do)'. No one ever accused me of being nice. I hit delete.


Tuesday morning: I have an email from him. All of the same. Literally. Even down to signing off as "Dr. XXXXX" and reminding me he has already tried to get my attention twice. Now he might be a totally harmless, if misguided, wannabe police reformer, but let’s keep in mind that this is now the 3rd contact in 6 days.


The reality is that any time you put yourself out there - whether it's on social media or in print news - there's a potential you will attract some type of negative or unwanted attention. I suspect it happens to all of us at one time or another*. It might be a seriously hate-filled tweet - as happened to two of my colleagues this past week - or it might be some variety of stalker. The bottom line in handling these things is:


Trust and listen to your intuitions and do what is right for you. That's it.


For some people, that might be going off social media or taking a break. Others might want to judiciously use block and mute buttons. I enjoy sending people to my email "junk" folder. And still others might want to limit their public appearances on the 6 o'clock news or on radio. It really has to be about what is comfortable and will work for you.




*The worst situations are those where someone shows up at a conference. Sometimes it's an ardent admirer chasing you around an event and other times it's someone with serious mental health issues. And, yes, it’s happened to me.








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