Three months ago, city council member Ed Gonzalez began reading about Craigslist killers across the country. There was the elderly Georgia couple who, answering an ad, was shot and killed trying to purchase a vehicle. There was the 19-year-old college student from Illinois who was shot and killed while trying to sell his own car on Craigslist.
So Gonzalez started brainstorming a way to protect against tragedies like these in Houston. He proposed that Houston Police Department parking lots act as “safe havens” for people who are posting or answering to online ads—that way they don't end up in the headlines. Mayor Annise Parker was “immediately receptive” to the idea, Gonzalez says, and now, the policy is set to go into effect.
“This creates a safe zone for people to feel comfortable to complete their transaction,” Gonzalez said. “If somebody responds to your ad, instead of you having to go over to their apartment, now there's a better option. And if somebody declines, that's probably an indicator that their intentions weren't very good.”
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Harris County is no stranger to the type of Craigslist crime Gonzalez hopes this new policy will prevent. Most recently, in April, a man selling a pair of Air Jordans invited an interested buyer over to his apartment to make the sale. The man had to be airlifted to a hospital after the buyer brought a gun and shot him twice.
Since 2010, two Houstonians have died during Craigslist transactions. In September 2014, a man trying to buy a PlayStation consolewas shot and killed after meeting a Craigslist seller in an apartment parking lot. In June 2010, a woman who posted an ad in need of financial help was stabbed to death in her car, which her killer then set on fire.
Jim Townsend, editorial director for AIM Group—a consulting firm for the classified ad market that, earlier this year, conducted a nationwide study on Craiglists killings—said that the only types of transactions that buyers or sellers probably won't use a safe haven for are illegal ones, like soliciting prostitution or selling stolen goods. Of the 86 Craigslist deaths that have occurred nationwide since 2009, Townsend said that the vast majority happened during ordinary transactions and didn't involve any illegal scenarios.
But the point of this safe haven initiative, Gonzalez said, didn't have anything to do with nabbing petty criminals or pimps. Gonzalez explained that the police aren't going to intervene in any of the Craigslist sales. “We're not going to be involved as witnesses in a transaction where we can say, 'Oh wait, you said it was $50,'” Gonzalez said. “We just want to provide a taxpayer facility that would be a safe option for someone should they be engaged in online trading.”