Owning the crime problem
Polimom is a firm believer in personal responsibility and accountability. It’s probably what makes the political positions on this blog occasionally difficult to pinpoint... because it’s hard to take a purely liberal, social-consciousness approach when one holds firmly to this core value.
One can only ask so much from a government, whether federal or local, and crime control is a case in point. Social reform (also desperately needed in NOLA) is only part of the equation.
In the comments, I was recently asked, “what do we do to curb the crime?” I want to bring my response (and ideally the entire dialogue) up out of the comments section, because I think it’s too important to bury:
New Orleans has an unprecedented opportunity to "own" its neighborhoods, because the people who are there know each other, block by block.
As a community-based effort, simple refusal to just turn the blind eye, or taking conversations beyond the front porch about specific drug trafficking (etc.) while the police have the ability - the space - to be proactive, might slow resurgence. Now. While crime is low.
I like the Guardian Angels, not as a specific group, but as a concept. It isn't about vigilante-ism, but vastly heightened awareness combined with a desire to shut it down at the micro-level.
Beyond those approaches, though, the solutions are elusive. Throwing money at an entrenched crime problem doesn't make it go away. Once the cycle has started for an individual, or a neighborhood (or a city), it is like a cancer.
There is an elephant in the New Orleans rebuilding room, and everybody is just dancing around it. I can’t count anymore the number of posts I’ve written on this topic, and they just languish. It’s possible that I just wrote them badly (I definitely write my fair share of lame posts…), but I’m concerned that people are in the “ignore it; maybe it’ll go away” mode, and if they are, the entire situation is likely to come back and bite them in the behind.
Is the situation being ignored because of confusion of what role race plays in the issue of crime? That's my guess, actually. I think that very confusion was behind a lot of the recent NIMBY-ism and the long-standing racial suspicion and hostility in New Orleans. If that is why the topic is being avoided, then people need to get it out in the open, so they can get educated on the subject... because it's not a function of race at all. With the exception of the predators and socio- or psychopaths (who tend to be white), crime is a social and cultural issue.
Many – maybe most – of the hard-core criminals are elsewhere just now (Houston seems to have been a popular destination). So how do Law Enforcement and city officials plan to keep the gangs and atrocious crime levels from returning? So far, all I've seen are naïve statements like, “we’re not going to let the criminals come back”. I’ve seen nothing resembling a plan for how that would be accomplished.
Admittedly, New Orleans is not going to get all their criminals back, if only through attrition. Some are dying here in Houston, and others are off to the Texas Criminal Justice system. But those left standing at the end of the day are very likely to head back to New Orleans when the situation becomes too “hot” in the host cities. Is NOLA ready for them?
I was asked, “what does a community-effort look like?” It’s a big step beyond “Neighborhood Watch”, which all too frequently leads to people watching their neighborhoods go to hell. Here’s a true story, from my recent past:
In my ordinary, middle-class neighborhood, we had a teenage boy who was clearly on the wrong path. Things like suspensions from school, fights, late nights outside with his buds, increasing numbers of cars cruising the block (both fast and slow)… there was a lot of build-up. So when the situation escalated, we weren’t surprised. We were, however, afraid – particularly since the defining moment was a gang fight in the street, with bats and weapons.
The police were called, but by the time they got there (and it wasn’t all that long), the young punks – all about 18 years old – were long gone. Unsurprisingly, our neighbor kid who was at the heart of the mess wouldn’t give any names. He was all about “getting them back”, and “you don’t narc on people”.
So, the cops were limited in what they could do. Yes, they could react to the next problem, and the next. They could step up patrols… but they can’t be there every minute of every day. We, however – the residents of the block – had things we could do. And did.
We started “hanging out” a lot on our front porches. If there was a car coming down the street full of punks, we became very visible. We made a big show of watching those kids every time they were on our block. We wrote down license plates; we engaged kids on foot in conversations (“Good morning. Where ya goin’?”). We had a phone tree for each house on the block, so we could call one another and put all this into play when the need arose.
And guess what? The problem went away. Totally gone. Poof.
To me, that’s what community intervention looks like. Furthermore, the police knew we were doing this, and we all had 911 running constantly in the backs of our minds… cuz there was NO way any of us wanted to confront a gun. We never did have to actually call 911, but we were all prepared to do so.
Given New Orleans’ currently reduced population, this is one way to keep the criminals from coming back: make it an unpleasant place to be. It requires working with the police and the neighbors – but it also requires a fervent desire to not go back to the same old patterns. Citizens have the power to do this, but they have to want it.
If you wait until the neighborhoods are riddled with gunfire again, it's too late. New Orleans needs to step in front of this now, as a community. While they still can.