Politics

I Caught Two Men Stealing From My Home. The Aftermath Was Absurd—and All Too Typical.

This experience crystallized Oregon’s deeper problems.

A burgular peeking into a back door.
ricardoreitmeyer/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Typically, guys wearing power-company vests don’t leave the houses they’re working on laden down with backpacks—let alone power tools, a scooter, and a Nintendo Switch. But that was the scene I happened upon at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in mid-April when I puttered into my driveway in Eugene, Oregon, my 7-year-old ensconced in the back seat.

For a second, my brain tried to normalize the incident: This is just my daughter’s dad stopping by—except there are two of him, and they’re dressed as electricians for some reason? Then, a second later, everything whooshed into place: Oh, wait, I’m being robbed. Or, rather, I was being burgled. I would get reminded of this distinction later, when I made the dubious choice to join the chorus of aggrieved buttinskies on Nextdoor, where my well-meaning post to warn the neighborhood would turn me into an accidental vigilante hero for a day.

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Unfortunately, it’s true: My reaction to this burgle was the lived-out fantasy of many who have been on the business end of a property crime. As the two goons took off on foot down my street, I went into fight-or-flight mode—and I chose fight.

“Well,” I said to my confused child, “let’s go see if we can get our stuff back.”

I peeled my 2005 Subaru back onto the street and easily overtook my two targets, who then hurtled themselves into an alley, whereupon I cornered one by the driver’s side window as the other made haste across the adjacent parking lot.

“Just give it back, bro!” I yelled out my window. “Just give it back! I’m a single mom! Just give it back.”

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I repeated this until either I reminded him too much of his meanest teacher or he realized he’d been caught in broad daylight. “Fine,” he said. “Just fucking take it.”

He shoved a backpack through my driver’s side window. Inside it was both my laptops and my daughter’s iPad from school. Back at home, I would discover these guys had used channel lock pliers to force open the back door, but that the general chaos of my home had prevented them from locating my passport, jewelry, or sole item of irreplaceable value: the Montblanc fountain pen that my father, who died in a bicycle accident two years ago, had gotten for his law school graduation. My cat was unfazed.

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I can honestly tell you that this little caper of mine was thrilling and deeply satisfying. It was also the exact wrong thing to do. Even this fanatical open-carry gun website implores: “Don’t chase criminals.” What if these two dipsticks had been armed? As unlikely as that was—property crime in my town is often driven by addiction, and weapons are worth money, which can buy drugs—I put myself and my child in potential danger. And for what? Three grand worth of electronics. As any reputable expert will tell you, you’re never to give chase to a thief, because human life is not worth possessions. As much as I admit to enjoying being called a “badass” by everyone I told this story, plus the listeners of KLCC Oregon, I should not have done this.

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I did call the police, on the nonemergency line, because the dudes were long gone and nobody was hurt. I declined the dispatcher’s offer to send two officers to fingerprint a bunch of stuff I’d already touched. At best, that would have just added two more sets of prints to my town’s burgeoning roster of perennially at-large property criminals.

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There are larger issues here, issues much more important than my would-be cool story. First, it’s an example of how in Eugene, small-scale property crime is now de facto legal. It is largely nonviolent, so it’s rarely seen as worth police resources to track down the goods. At the same time, it is so prevalent that any time one vest-wearing bozo gets nabbed, three more spring up in his place. This was my house’s second break-in in six months, and my fourth property crime total in the three years I’ve lived here as an adult. Eugene is my hometown, so I can also add the four times my childhood house, where my mother still lives, has been burgled since the early 2000s. When I was little, we left our front door unlocked so regularly that I wasn’t aware front doors had locks on them until I was much older. By the time I turned 30, however, every door in my parents’ house had been pried open at least once. (“Time to finally get that alarm system!” said my dad for three straight decades.)

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Still, it’s a mistake to treat this trend solely as a vexing crime problem. Eugene’s descent into its property crime epidemic has been concurrent, unsurprisingly, with two addiction epidemics: First, the methamphetamine nightmare of the 1990s—when pseudoephedrine pills were still unregulatedhit Oregon and other Western states particularly hard. That wave segued all too naturally into the opioid and fentanyl crisis of the present. Meanwhile, not only did meth never really leave, but its use in Oregon also surged with the pandemic, with three Oregonians per day currently dying a drug-related death.

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Since our conversation was necessarily brief, I don’t know the housing or drug situation of the guys who broke into my place. But local statistics point to them as two more casualties of these plagues. (Granted, those statistics are from nearby Portland, and they are police-sourced, so take them how you wish.)

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For all the ambivalent empathy that the opioid epidemic has engendered, the local property crime scourge has set off a fierce public backlash. My incident brought out an unsurprising chorus of bloodlust on Nextdoor and elsewhere, when I shared it because I wanted to give my immediate neighbors a heads-up: “You should have kicked their asses,” they wrote. “We need to rise up and defend our property.

This town’s petty crime is often attributed, at least in the national conservative press, to our West Coast government’s decision to temporarily allow urban camping during the pandemic. (That policy has now officially ended, for what it’s worth.) Towns like mine have often been characterized in the popular imagination as unlivable crime-addled hellholes. I will be the first to admit that our tent cities are sometimes blatant open-air drug markets, but this is the case even as our property values inflate to absurd proportions—and our crime is actually on the decline. Still, Oregonians like me currently have about a 2.7 percent chance of being burgled, which, at almost 30 percent higher than the national average, is very high. I learned very efficiently how anecdotes like mine get around (I can’t help it if I’m a dynamic storyteller!) and attract the righteous indignation of other former victims, so many often feel, incorrectly, like we few honest vanguards are awash in a sea of riffraff.

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This atmosphere, in turn, inspires my locality’s equally unreasonable political extremists to put forth and exacerbate their own untenable solutions. Even in a hyperpolarized American environment, Oregon is more polarized than most. For decades, our liberal enclaves have made Portlandia look understated, while our conservative areas make Texas’ look progressive.

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For example, during the heyday of Eugene’s recently dismantled and infamous Washington Jefferson Park tent city, a larger break-in at a bicycle store was traced at least partially back to the encampment. The police swept the tents and made a flurry of arrests. Some of the bikes were found. This resulted in part in outrage over using resources to hassle the city’s most impoverished residents: “A stolen bike, yes, that sucks,” an advocate for the unhoused told a local news outlet. “But what are your priorities? And I’m sorry, but a stolen bike isn’t the priority.”

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Well, trust me, in this town, it definitely isn’t. Recovering those bikes was an anomaly; in Eugene, most of these burglaries go unsolved. In fact, 87 percent of burglaries in the whole country do, too. The get-tough-on-property-crime proponents assert that statistically, this sends a message that stealing is fair game, and sure, that is a message I do not condone. But I also agree with a somewhat less rabid version of the opposing view: Property is replaceable, these crimes are nonviolent, and everyone currently rifling through houses and dealing drugs out of tents in my town is human. They deserve a chance to get their lives on track.

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So, what should be the town’s priority? Fixing the addiction epidemics is a perilously long way away from happening, for reasons that are as polarizing as addiction’s consequences. In the sobering and excellent Dopesick, author Beth Macy goes into painfully exacting detail about opioids’ near-inescapable hold on the human brain. Macy argues that the true way out of this epidemic is “low-barrier treatment,” which includes supportive housing and medical interventions such as safe injection supplies, fentanyl testing strips, buprenorphine access, and supervised consumption sites. All of these options, however, are a tough sell even in a “progressive” town like Eugene, where supervised consumption sites are what NIMBY nightmares are made of, and low-barrier treatment can run up against deeply held moral stigma: Gas is $5 a gallon, and my taxes are going to some junkie?

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In the meantime, while some admirably advocate and vote and wait for those breakthroughs, what should we do about the burglaries themselves? Should we pursue more law enforcement, or more compassion toward the burglars? More arrests that allegedly might deter this, or policies that might alleviate income inequality? Does—as approximately 83 percent of the suggestions from my Nextdoor thread contended—every house in town need a tripwire that handcuffs trespassers on sight? Or should all businesses be taxed at 500 percent, and the proceeds used to furnish every fentanyl dealer in town with a nice apartment and mad cash? The debate has degenerated such that these are the sorts of cartoonish positions each side believes they’re fighting—and, in fact, are the only available choices. Just check out Eugene’s Reddit section any day, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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The actual blight on small American towns like mine isn’t property crime. It’s that any tenable solution to it has been swallowed up into a churning abyss of extremism and perceived counterextremism. No one seems to have a convincing answer to the most basic question: So what should we do? What should I do?

Burglaries don’t have to be largely unsolvable, and more property criminals could be apprehended. But while I don’t want those dudes or any of their buddies to come back to my house, I also don’t want them in an American prison, where their “rehabilitation” will consist largely of learning better ways to commit even bigger crimes when they get out, and their options for alternative forms of acquiring money will be even more limited than they are now. Lacking any meaningful restorative justice program for petty thieves in my town (which would, in turn, necessitate locating and apprehending them), I decided my own problems could be solved, for now, with a padlock on my back gate.

And then, not long after the break-in, a Nintendo Switch appeared on my town’s Craigslist. Its included components and color combination were identical to the set stolen from my house. I debated, briefly, bringing my vigilante justice alter ego Super Annoying out of retirement, answering the ad and showing up to shrill my wrongdoers into returning what was mine. But this time, I thought better of it. My life is not worth much, but it’s probably worth more than Mario Kart. I can only hope the console’s new owners enjoy it as much as my daughter did—at least until someone steals it again.

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