When Elrey “Bud” Runion and his wife, June, organized a meeting with a seller they’d found on Craigslist, the Atlanta couple thought they were one step closer to purchasing the 1966 Ford Mustang convertible that Bud so desperately wanted to drive.
Authorities believe the Runions actually arranged for their own ambush, providing Ronnie “Jay” Towns with the opportunity to rob and kill the Georgia couple before dumping their bodies in a pond in rural Telfair County in January. Towns has been charged with armed robbery and murder while members of the Runion family have been left with heartache and anger.
Violent crimes that begin with an exchange between strangers on Craigslist have sent law enforcement officials searching for solutions.
For a growing number of U.S. police departments, the answer is creating safe havens for Craigslist transactions. The goal, police around the country say, is to create public space for legitimate transactions to take place, often under the watchful eye of authorities.
“It’s a real problem,” Juan Perez, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, told the Miami Herald. “We’ve had people advertise cars on some of these Web sites. People come with the money, and they rob them.”
In Hartford, where police recently arrested two men involved in the violent robbery of a man who used Craigslist to sell a laptop, authorities are calling their initiative “Operation Safe Lot,” according to the Hartford Courant.
Here’s how it works: Buyers and sellers hoping to carry out a potential transaction through Craigslist can arrange to meet in a small parking lot beside a recently built police station, according to police. Well-lit and under constant surveillance, the lot will be open to the public for Craigslist transactions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Operation Safe Lot came about after Hartford Police officials noticed similar plans had proved successful in other cities, Deputy Chief Brian Foley told the Courant.
“Research shows it’s been a success,” he said.
When his son sold a car on Craigslist in Manchester, Md., the Associated Press reported, Police Chief John Hess had him complete the transaction in a police parking lot.
“Nine out of 10 times, if that person had any criminal thoughts, they’re not going to come to a police station,” Hess said.
While Manchester police don’t offer locations for online transactions, Hess said he would develop a policy for such sales if a problem arose.
Craigslist did not respond to The Washington Post’s e-mails and phone calls seeking comment on Craigslist-related crimes and the emerging trend of police station safe zones. Craigslist’s “personal safety” page says that among the billions of “human interactions facilitated” by the site, the incidence of violent crime is “extremely low.”
However, in addition to telling users to carry a cellphone with them during transactions, Craigslist also warns buyers and sellers: “Do not meet in a secluded place,” “be especially careful when buying/selling high value items” and “consider having a friend accompany you.”
Peter Zollman, whose classified-ad consulting firm tracks crimes linked to Craigslist, told the AP that his firm located news reports for more than 20 killings related to the site in 2014.
A 2011 report from a competitor titled “Crime and Craigslist: A Sad Tale of Murders and More” said the site was linked with 330 crimes the previous year, including “12 murders and 105 robberies or assaults in the United States,” according to Fast Company. At the time, a Craigslist spokesperson suggested that the numbers were negligible considering the massive number of transactions that occur without incident.
“It’s probably worth considering we had over 573 million postings on Craigslist last year in North America,” the spokesperson told Fast Company. “What are the odds?”
Mark Warr, a criminologist and sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, made a similar point, telling the AP that the frequency of crime does not warrant the level of fear associated with it.
“My research shows that the public tends to exaggerate the frequency of relatively rare but serious crimes like homicide, because these crimes are selected out and disproportionately reported by the news media because of their newsworthiness,” Warr said.
That hasn’t stopped more police departments from moving to stop crimes linked to Craigslist before they can occur.
In January, police in Columbia, Mo., turned the department’s lobby into a 24-hour space to buy and sell goods advertised online, according to the Columbia Missourian. Aside from weapons, people can buy or sell anything they want, according to police. Officials produced a short instructional video for the “online exchange zone” and said they hoped the location would serve as a deterrent for anyone engaged in illegal activity.
“People with stolen items may not want to meet at the police department,” police spokesman Bryan Maupin said.
In Miami-Dade County, a proposal to use parking lots at county police stations for classified advertisement Web sites is being considered after a string of violent transactions in South Florida, according to the proposal’s advocate, Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally A. Heyman.
“Police departments around the country are doing this because it saved them the time of having to write up an incident report after someone is victimized,” she told The Post. “This is the responsibility of government, to try and step in and make our citizens, our constituents and our visitors more safe.”