Police alone can't pacify a violent culture

Public safety is and remains a primary topic of concern for Detroiters. From campaign conversation to political platforms to administrative agendas, making and keeping Detroit safe has been an elusive promise, the fulfillment of which apparently lies with simply hiring more police officers.

Without question, an increased police presence would do wonders for the perception of safety and may even slightly improve crime numbers. Regardless of the number of police officers available, they need to be armed with the necessary equipment, protection and firepower to combat the criminal element. Yet, in all of the conversations about what has to happen in order to make Detroit safe there is one significant element missing: the culture.

Flint and Detroit are neck-and-neck for the top spot of most violent cities in America, according to recent FBI statistics. Shootings and crying families are as much a part of news reports as the weather. We almost expect them, and barely raise an eyebrow when we see them other than to comment about how bad things are these days.

The day after these stats were released, so was Grand Theft Auto V, the newest edition of what no one denies is one of, if not the most, violent video games on the market. Sales reached a record $800 million in the first 24 hours after its release. It says much about our interest and priorities, or lack thereof.

Stories of shootings, reaching into urban and suburban areas alike, seem to get crazier with every report, including one in Ionia where two men shot and killed each other in a road rage encounter, or an incident where a group of teens shot another because they were “bored.”

Guns have become so much a part of our society and their fatal impact is our reality. No amount of policing, can change that. Disagreements are settled with gunfire, gang initiations use violence as a test of loyalty, and our communities remain in tears and crisis.

Blame for our violent culture has been laid at the feet of everything and everyone from politicians to hip-hop to video games; education, unemployment, drugs and mental health are also in the lineup of suspects. The reality is that they all play a role in what still falls heavily under personal responsibility.

Morality, common sense and responsible practices and behaviors cannot be regulated. Use of weapons can’t either, as even those with permits (like both men in Ionia) are not above the violent cultural fray. And most criminals don’t bother to register their weapons, nor do they exchange them for grocery store gift cards during heavily promoted gun buy-back programs. However, the factors and circumstances that contribute to the absence of these can and must be, at least, acknowledged in order for the problem to be solved.

It can’t start at home, because for many those are broken, too. Schools and teachers are already overburdened with disciplinary challenges, which all but prevent a full day of academic activities. And, it doesn’t mean that everybody should buy a weapon – although it doesn’t seem there are many left to do so.

I recently sat in a small group of young people hosted by the Community Relations Office of Wayne State University. It wasn’t formal, but was designed to have an open dialogue with young people about who they were, their challenges and how we as adults could help. In the group was a young man who was recently released from prison where he served several years for not “snitching” on who killed his friend. His conversation was quite revealing, and was a stark contrast to what many adults think about those who live and breathe violent lifestyles. But those are the conversations that must shape our policy and practices. We can’t assist from behind a desk or in the stands; observations alone can’t replace active engagement.

Sure, we’ll gladly take more cops. But to that, add a ride-along with those who have to deal with both ends of violence – from the officers on the streets to the ones who bag the bodies, as well as all in between. Their stories and solutions are far different than that of those who write campaign speeches or press releases.

The bottom line is that we must ask and engage those who know, those who see it, live it, breathe it and die by or because of it every day. Until we do, we’re only aiding and abetting in some seemingly insignificant way.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Sat, 09/28/2013 - 10:10am
Police alone can't solve the crime problem, but they can make a big difference. The model for what works is New York City, where it's now safe to walk the streets at night. Better police tactics also make a huge difference and the model again is NYC. One of the things they'll do is target a crime infested neighborhood with overwhelming enforcement. They arrest some and drive many others to do their crimes some place else, for New Yorkers, hopefully in New Jersey. Once the neighborhood becomes safe again, they reduce enforcement in that area and focus on the next hotspot. It takes awhile for a neighborhood to be reinfected with criminals. Hand gun owners are a menace, since even if they aren't doing crimes, they are a target for crimes because criminals want their pistols. Again the model for dealing with this is NYC, which still manages to mitigate hand gun proliferation despite our U.S. Supreme Court. Another tactic that consistently works is good supervision. Zero tolerance parole and probation simply works. When a criminal screws up there are always sanctions and sometime these sanctions include some time in the county jail. Good supervision works better than incarceration because the criminals aren't sitting behind bars teaching each other how to be better criminals. Good supervision requires not only zero tolerance for infractions, it also requires use of all the monitoring tools: random drug and alcohol testing, random search of the criminal's residence, random calls to employers to question if the criminals are showing up for work, monitoring attendance if they are supposed to be in school, use of electronic monitoring and local day reporting programs (i.e. work camps for the unemployed). Good supervision costs a lot less than incarceration, often has lower recidivism rates and can economically last much longer than incarceration for criminals who are likely to commit new crimes. Incarceration is the most expensive means of correction. It's used too much and for too long. The punishment part of incarceration is over once the criminal adjusts to the new environment, which then is no longer punishment, but a new normal. Numerous studies show there is no relationship between length of sentence and recidivism. We know how to solve crime problems, but blaming the problem on culture is a dead end in terms of crime prevention. So is blaming the problem on video games, particularly since there is no credible data that shows that video game users are more violent than non users. Detroit, Flint and Saginaw need more cops, but they need smart criminal justice more.
Sun, 09/29/2013 - 2:39pm
EB, Can you help me understand your reasoning? "Hand gun owners are a menace, since even if they aren’t doing crimes, they are a target for crimes because criminals want their pistols." Does that means anyone who has something a criminal wants is a menace? Does it mean simlply a law abiding citizen having money in their pocket makes them a menace because there is a criminal that will be targeting them? With regard to incarceration, have you considered that is it more then a means of punishment, can be an effective way to isolate the criminals from the law abiding citizens who they want to target?
Sun, 09/29/2013 - 2:23pm
It is interesting was what was missing/ignored in the article, the person who perpetrated the crime and those who facilite additional crimes. We hear about all the others who can't do anything, police who work after the fact, parents and teachers who are over burdened, those who live in violent environments. But we never hear about the criminals, those that choose to commit the crimes. Why is Ms. Dumas like so many others that focus on the others and not the criminals? Why does it seem that it is the people not commititng the crimes are to be the ones to prevent the crimes? When does Ms. Dumas and others start asking the criminals why and how they got into crime and being so violent? It seems that a small percentage of society, even those in high crime areas, don;t commit the crimes. Why doesn't Ms. Dumas and other ask them why they didn't/don't and how they have avoid such tempations? Ms. Dumas seems to think that broken families are a contributor to crime, I wonder if she has ever asked why those homes are broken to see if that can be prevented? Ms. Dumas seems less interest in why crimes happen and more about opining on those who don't commit the crimes.
Charles Richards
Sun, 09/29/2013 - 8:31pm
I was really impressed with Ms. Dumas' last essay; this one falls significantly short of that one. She is only partially correct when she says, "Morality, common sense and responsible practices and behaviors cannot be regulated." People do respond to incentives regarding their practices and behaviors. And while people cannot be invested with common sense, they can be raised, their character shaped, to internalize morality. Steven Pinker, in his excellent book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined," establishes that violence has declined, and manners and mores have steadily improved over the last few centuries. People internalized better social norms; that is until the sixties, and the youth revolution, when there was a failure to socialize the younger generation, who found the inherited internalized standards of behavior far too restrictive. Crime rates rose sharply during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. As that generation aged, and their influence waned, crime rates began returning to their previous levels. The rate of gun murders has fallen by half since 1990. Our perspective is naturally shaped by where we live. Big cities with a high concentration of poor people are violent. It is the concentration of poor people into a critical mass that accounts for that. The demolition and reconstruction of a public housing project in Atlanta, Georgia illumnates the dynamics involved. When the project was rebuilt, it was stipulated that only half the residents could be on public assistance; the other half of the units had to be rented at market rates. The reincarnated neighborhood has been very successful, with a marked absence of social problems and bad schools. New York City has demonstrated that it is possible to have low crime rates even with a large concentration of poor people, but it appears that, in the interest of residents' "civil liberties" that situation will not continue. Ms. Dumas says that we must listen to those on the front lines, those who live with crime every day, saying, "Their stories and solutions are far different than that of those who write campaign speeches or press releases." Very well. So, why didn't she share these stories and solutions? This was her opportunity to share these illuminating insights. Why didn't she?
Greg Thrasher
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 3:30pm
I am so tired of these hollow narratives about crime especially urban crime aka Black crime. The facts of course never make it into these empty essays. Crime in every venue in America especially urban venues is down of more importance crimes which involve violent acts are way down according to not only the FBI crime data( BTW the FBI data is not very accurate this data is from law enforcement agencies across the country that VOLUNTARILY participate in the Uniform Crime Reporting) as such it is not accurate in any measure. Not with standing the credibility of the FBI crime data once must examine the real world and the levels of crime in the real world. To do this one must simply examine your own orbit of family and friends and I would wager with reality based accuracy 9 out of ten readers of this comment have no record of crime occuring in thier orbits of family and friends. Let me cut to the chase.. Crime is a political construct, most victims know thier criminal, majority of crime in our nation is caused by a very small percentage of population, those currently in jail reflect a very very very small precentage of the overall US population. Most people including Blacks in urban venues are not criminals nor do they commit crime. We must shatter the myths ,propaganda and disinformation about crime.http://voiceofdetroit.net/2010/12/12/the-crime-of-reporting-crime/Greg Thrasher Director PLANE IDEAS Washington DC