Self-service law enforcement? No thanks.

It was a chilly Northern California afternoon and I was working in my home office. A two-way radio crackled, and through slits in the closed blinds to my office I could see men moving past my window. I got up and quietly moved toward thebedroom. I pushed the blind open just a little and was startled to see three men pointing large handguns up into the big tree in my backyard.

The back of their shirts proclaimed "POLICE" in large black letters. San Jose's finest, and some from neighboring towns, stood there awhile, guns aimed at the branches, and then, weapons back at their sides, they conferred. I considered knocking on the window to get their attention. I weighed the odds of their shooting me, and then knocked. They walked over to the window. "What's wrong?" I asked.

A "bad guy" was in the neighborhood, one of the cops said. The "do-badder" - whose crime they preferred to keep to themselves - was tall, dark, and Hispanic, with a shaved head, the cop told me, and I should keep the house locked up and dial 911 if I saw him.

I assured him I would. I walked over to peek out the front window. Half a dozen police cars were lined up on the street. A big, black, patrol wagon stretched diagonally across my driveway, and a squad car blocked the street. My yard was at the center of the search.

I had never before seen police in my quiet suburban neighborhood, and I was comforted, if a little disconcerted, by the presence of so many in my small yard.

Every day the paper tells me the world is full of "bad guys" - child abusers, rapists, murderers. I didn't want to know what this particular man had done to inspire such a big turnout from law enforcement. For the first time - with this scene that seemed to have leapt from the newspapers onto my front lawn - I felt vulnerable without a burglar- alarm system.

That's when I remembered: The side door to the garage was unlocked, thanks to my husband, Bob, who thinks safety precautions like locking doors are an affront to his manhood. ("You're just paranoid," he tells me.)

I walked outside and up to two uniformed officers. "My garage door has been unlocked this whole time," I said. "Would you check my garage?"

"No," said one of the uniforms. "The guy in your driveway would've seen him." I stewed. That door had been unlocked for hours, and I'd have to open the garage door when I went out later. What if someone was hiding in there?

A few minutes later, I slipped over to the officer standing guard in my driveway and asked if he could check the garage. "I can't open that side door now," he told me. I looked at him quizzically. "Well, he might jump out," the officer explained. My point, exactly.

I thought, would it be better for me to open it on my way to the mall? Armed with my credit card and the bag of sweaters I'm returning? When the fugitive pops out, I'll just throw the sweaters over his head and tackle him, just as airline passengers prepared themselves to do after Sept. 11.

Bob pulled up on the street a few minutes later. He got out of his Jeep and showed the officer in the driveway his remote garage opener. Did the officer want him to open the garage door with his remote? The uniformed cop allowed that would be OK.

The door opened; the officer entered the garage cautiously. Then, he did something that probably hasn't happened since the Boulder, Colo., police asked John Ramsey to help search the house for his missing daughter. He asked Bob to look under my car. "What do you see under there?" the cop asked.

"I see a muffler," said Bob.

Phew, right? Actually, I was hardly comforted. What if Bob - my unarmed civilian husband - had seen the "bad guy" with a gun pointed right at him?

I've reluctantly grown accustomed to lower levels of customer service from my grocery, my salon,my hardware store. But the childhood concept of "Officer Friendly" - someone willing "to protect and to serve" - disappeared that day. I never found out what the man on the run had done. But I wonder: Have we finally taken self-service to an extreme? I don't mind pumping my own gas, I don't mind checking out and bagging my own "BlueLight Specials" at Kmart, and I don't even mind being vigilant on an airplane. But must we civilians now search our own neighborhoods for bad guys?

I'm not sure wearing a Kevlar vest in my own home suits me. I don't like guns, and we still don't have an alarm system. But I wonder what our options are, in an increasingly - and alarmingly - self- service society.

Carol Cassara is a communications consultant who lives in both Tampa, Fla., and now Carmel, Calif.

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