Volume 92, Issue 52

Friday, December 4, 1998

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Urban legends keep police on the lookout

By Clare Elias
Gazette Staff

Urban legends and other unconfirmed rumours spawned over the internet are keeping police on their toes.

The most up-to-date legend floating around the internet is that used syringes are being placed in the coin receptors of public phones. "This is the second one of a series of gang initiations going around," said Const. Darrin Little, media relations officer at the Metro Toronto Police Department. He added such reports are unsubstantiated.

Metro police are not releasing any statements regarding these rumours, with the intent to purposely avoid imitation.

Det. Const. John McDonald of the London police said although he is unfamiliar with this particular urban legend, such rumours are the basis for various precautions. "We wear kevlar gloves," he said. He added kevlar protects officers' hands when performing searches.

With respect to legends involving syringes, McDonald said he had previously heard the needles were being placed in the upholstery of stolen cars. The idea is that when a stolen car is found, officers generally drive them back to the station.

"People are motivated by other factors and their behaviour would have come out anyway, whether or not they were influenced by the internet," said Douglas Baer associate professor of sociology at Western.

While acknowledging the long-standing argument concerning the relationship of publicity and increase in crime, Baer suspects these rumoured events to be isolated cases and therefore their lack of widespread occurrence does not substantiate a serious threat to society.

Baer contends the internet has thus become a breeding ground for valuable, but also misleading information.

According to Benjamin Singer, another professor of sociology at Western, information on the internet creates ambiguity in truth because of its fashion. "The question is, what is the basis for truth of the urban legend or rumour. If none, then the question is why are the rumours being circulated?" he said.

Singer believed these legends can cause mass hysteria and attempted to use this logic to locate answers behind the public's reaction.

"Collective behaviour is based upon fear, unrealistic fear. And sociologists will come up with some reason for these tensions. One being that it's difficult times we live in and therefore people will believe these crime stories. But it's always difficult times."

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Copyright The Gazette 1998