Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Local Temple Break-in Raises Questions About Police Response and Buddhist Equanimity

A week ago yesterday, two people broke in to the local Thai Buddhist temple early in the morning and stole thousands of dollars in cash from donations stored mostly in traditional wooden donation boxes. Their crime was caught on cameras outside and inside the temple, but they were wearing masks and thick clothing that disguised their identities. Nevertheless, after some of the temple regulars scrutinized the videos closely, they think they recognized at least one of the thieves. They believe it was someone who had attended the temple previously and argued with other members present. This seems credible given the fact that the thieves knew exactly where to find most of the money housed in the temple. Of course, my Thai wife, who serves on the temple board of directors, and I also attend the temple on an almost weekly basis, and I didn't know where the money was stored. But then I wasn't looking to break in and steal it.

Another wrinkle to this story is that the head monk or abbot was sleeping in an adjoining room to the main temple area when the thieves broke in, and he awoke to watch the video monitor with frightened helplessness as the thieves ransacked the sacred space just outside his closed door. He picked up his phone to alert someone, but because of his rudimentary English, he called someone with better English skills than his and asked them to call 911. However, soon afterwards, an accomplice waiting outside the closed temple gates blew a whistle and the two thieves inside the temple hastily departed with their booty, scaled the temple fence, and took off in a car. Once the police learned that the culprits had fled the scene, they canceled their response.

Still, the monks and, later, other members of the temple waited patiently on scene for the police to arrive and investigate. And because they didn't want to disturb the evidence, they touched nothing, leaving the temple, where members meet daily in traditional Thai Buddhist style to offer food to the monks and gather for a brief service, unusable in the interim. They were still waiting twelve hours later when a local TV news reporter and her camera man showed up to do a story on the break-in. She immediately called police, and a few minutes later, an officer and crime technician arrived. A few minutes after that, so did my wife and I.

That day had been one of the coldest on record for the area, and two things that struck me as soon as I stepped through the shattered sliding glass door that served as the main entrance into the temple was how cold it was inside and what a sacrilegious mess of broken glass, splintered wood, and coins the thieves had left strewn all over the matted temple floor where attendees normally kneel or sit in reverent devotion.

After the police and news crew took their absence, I called the temple's insurance provider to help file a theft and damages claim, and then, as my wife and I helped clean up the mess on the floor, some of the members began to question why it took so long for police to investigate. The reporter had asked the police officer about this, and he replied that because the thieves left as quickly as they did, a lower priority was assigned to the call. But twelve hours and counting lower of a priority, and, even then, only in response to a reporter's goading? This seemed excessive even for the understaffed police department of California's capital city of half a million.

Some began to openly wonder if it would have taken the police as long to come out to investigate the break-in and burglary of a Caucasian business or Christian church. And, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder the same. A few days later, I composed the following letter to the editor of the local newspaper, although it hasn't yet appeared in the paper and, from the looks of it, may never do so:

Do the Sacramento police care less about Asian Buddhist temples than they do about Caucasian businesses and Christian churches? Some of us think this is a possibility after thieves broke in to a Sacramento Thai Buddhist temple early Tuesday morning, stole several thousand dollars in cash, and left behind a shattered sliding-glass door, splintered wood, and frayed nerves for twelve hours in the freakishly wintry chill before the police finally arrived to investigate. And they did this only after a local news reporter called in to ask when they were coming.
We all know the police keep very busy and we understand that they can't be everywhere at once or respond to every burglary minutes after the fact. But twelve hours after a serious crime while the distressed victims eagerly wait for them in the freezing disarray? Would they do that with Caucasians or Christians?
I don't presume to know the answer to the question I raised, but I wish someone would look into the issue. That's why I ended up writing messages to two local TV news reporters about it. One of the reporters has yet to reply, but the other graciously wrote back that she hoped to do a future story on police response times and would pitch the idea to her bosses. I hope she's able to do it despite the fact that, as she says, they don't want to incur the potentially unpleasant consequences of alienating the police department.

In the meantime, while serious measures are being taken to prevent future temple break-ins and thefts of donations, the abbot, who could have been assaulted or worse by the thieves, is now having difficulty sleeping at night and is struggling with anxiety over what happened. One could argue that no one was hurt and that not that much money was stolen, but if it had been me in that adjoining room knowing that the thieves could have discovered me there easily enough and harmed or even killed me, I'd probably be experiencing just as much post-traumatic anxiety and insomnia as the abbot.

But then I haven't been a serious Buddhist monk for several decades the way the abbot and his fellow temple monks have been. I've heard it said many times that we can't reasonably expect Buddhist discipline, even in the rigorous Thai forest monk tradition of our local temple monks, to inure one to fear, anxiety, and all other forms of emotional suffering. Yet, I find myself wondering if it shouldn't impart significant equanimity in the face of this and even far worse crime and, if it doesn't, if the Buddhist game is worth the proverbial candle.

Here is the story (with video) presented by the reporter on scene the day of the break-in, and here (with video) is another local channel reporter's presentation a day or two later.

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