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Police Departments creating 'safe exchange zones' to keep Craigslist-type deals from going bad

Author: Randall D. Larson

Date: 2015-11-04
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Based on and expanded from an article by Tom Jackman in The Washington Post  

While Craigslist, the online classified advertisement web site accommodating the sale of unwanted household goods and appliances, concert tickets, and much more, has benefitted millions of buyers and sellers, the site has also been tied to far more dangerous transactions in which some sellers arrange meetings with potential buyers (and vice versa), only to rob or even murder them when they arrive. 

In Maryland’s Prince George’s County, four victims were robbed when trying to buy or sell phones through Craigslist ads and similar apps over a six-day period last June. In May, a Missouri college student was claim after agreeing to sell a car to a buyer via Craigslist; a person answering an ad for a job in Ohio was killed. In Aurora, Colorado, last January, police arrested a man, charging him with using online transaction sites to lure and sexually assault women and girls.

Left: Safe Zone sign in parking lot of Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Colorado, set aside for Craigslist-type sales transactions (photo via boingboing.net)

California through the guise of free massages. The same month in Marietta, Georgia, a 28-year-old man was charged with robbing and killing a couple who were lured to a remote location from a Craigslist ad offering a 1966 Mustang for sale. Two reputated gang members in Los Angeles were charged in the robbery and killing of a man responding to a Craigslist ad in October, 2013; the same month on South Carolina two men were charged in the shooting death of a man trying to sell his pickup through a Craigslist ad. In Pennsylvania earlier in 2013, a newlywed couple stabbed a stranger who responding to an ad posted on Craigslist offering companionship.

One online blog last year counted 45 homicides resulting from online purchases between 2009 and 2014, including Boston’s “Craigslist killer” Philip Markoff.

In response to criminals using Craigslist to attract victims, a number of police departments around the country have designated “safe exchange zones” in the well-lit parking lots or even lobbies of their police station, where people to meet and sell their goods in a relatively safe environment.

“The practice appears to have started last year in Boca Raton, Fla., spread through central Florida and then through the law enforcement grapevine to police parking lots and lobbies throughout the country,” wrote Tom Jackman in a story for The Washington Post. “Leesburg and Fairfax City in Northern Virginia have adopted the approach in recent months, as a way to give online buyers and sellers a sense of security when they meet.”

“Over the summer of 2014,” Jackman quoted Boca Raton (FL) Police Officer Sandra Boonenberg, “we had three or four different robberies where the victim had made arrangements to meet someone to see either an iPhone or a computer. They met them in public places — one happened at a gas station — and they still got robbed. We decided we’re going to have to come up with something better, and the chief [Daniel C. Alexander] came up with the idea to use the police department for transactions.”

Jackman noted that officers don’t actively monitor the transactions (although many police parking lots and lobbies have surveillance cameras), and added that in some smaller departments, such as Fairview Heights (IL), an officer might go outside and meet the buyer and seller just to make public contact and reassure them.

“I’ll gladly give up two of my parking spaces,” said Fairfax City (VA) Police Chief Carl Pardiny, “to create an atmosphere that we’re at a location that’s safe. Policing is not about law enforcement completely. It’s about providing quality-of-life-based services to our residents and business owners.”

By last Spring, seven police/sheriff departments in Colorado had designated safe zones for persons to meet to conduct Craigslist-type sales transactions. "These safe transaction zones were designed to help protect our citizens as robberies, thefts and scams become more prevalent with online transaction sites," Adams County Sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Pataluna said in a news release. The zones have been set up in the lobbies of sheriff's office facilities in Brighton and Commerce City. Pataluna said they are well-lit and monitored by cameras.

Click here or on image at above right to read the full story at The Washington Post.

- People, Places & Things/9-1-1magazine.com (via The Washington Post, 11/2/15)

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