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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Monday, January 23, 2006

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.


  • At 1:36 PM, Blogger E.M. said;

    Polimom, A lot of excellent points here, I think. And I love your note about *how* to do community empowerment. I do wonder about the location. Where was it? Here in nola? And if not, does NOLA possess the community pride that IS required for a neighborhood to come together? I lived in West Palm Beach for awhile, and I am from Texas. And I can tell you that in many communities in both of those places, there is a great deal of pride in your lawn, your house, your block, your community. And there is no tolerance for anything less. These standards cross racial and class lines. It is simply the way in many places. Now, I realize this is a blanket statement, but I do question the ability of people to do that here. Has it been done before? Moreover, are things too laid back here? Is there such an emphasis on having a good time (culturally speaking), that the discipline and strength of a community are simply non-existent? I realize this is a bit off topic, but it occurred to me that in order -well, to have order - a neighborhood must care about its own space, its own people. And I question if New Orleans really wants that. So, does it? I hope people start a discussion up at some point here because I really am trying to learn (as a recent transplant).

  • At 4:52 PM, Blogger Polimom said;

    E. - We were in Houston when we did that little exercise, but the motivator really wasn't pride. It was anger, galvanized by fear.

    I think what you may possibly be referring to, in terms of pride in environment, is the broken window theory. As it happens, I also see "fixing broken windows" as a factor in deterring crime.

    However, I would describe New Orleans as having a very strong sense of community, generally. There is a sense, though, of timelessness there, which may contribute to the mildly languid approach to upkeep.

  • At 12:33 AM, Blogger pearl said;

    I believe that the best defense against crime is getting to know your neighbors. You don't have to be friends, but you should know what the people on your street look like in order to know who doesn't belong. Everyone should have the telephone numbers of each neighbor to the left and right of them in case of an emergency, fire during the night, robbery, car accident, etc. If you live across the street and you would like to know who is knocking on your door that you can not see through the peep hole, call your neighbor across the street and see if they can see through their peephole who is knocking on your door.
    Also, I believe that any crime committed by a child under 14 years of age should have their parents going to court to explain why they cannot control their child. The story about they can't get off because of work doesn't fly because they can get off if the child is killed while performing a crime.


  • At 7:59 AM, Blogger Polimom said;

    Pearl - you're right, of course. I and my neighbors were not strangers to one another. It's one of the advantages I suspect New Orleans has just at the moment, though; connection to neighbors.

    Juvenile crime and parental responsibility is another topic altogether, and certainly a troubling one. It isn't the under-14s, though, that I was thinking of in this particular post.

  • At 11:26 PM, Blogger nolagirl_8 said;

    Last night I went to Winn-Dixie on Holiday Drive in Algiers. About five young men were hanging around in the parking lot drinking 16 oz cans of beer and listening to their rap music - loud. Pre-Katrina, Winn-Dixie always had a New Orleans police officer posted visibly in the store. This time they were nowhere in sight. I've noticed in the last few weeks that there are a lot of people in Algiers that weren't here before that have crude manners and I reason that they must be displaced and I should have empathy for their situation, but this is not the type of people that we want in this neighborhood. Where are the police when you want them? It's only a matter of time before this neighborhood will fall if this type of behaviour is allowed to get a foothold here. I've already warned my children to be aware of their surroundings at all times. This is an unexpected part of the misery this city will be facing.

  • At 12:30 PM, Blogger Rebecca said;

    Algiers Point has changed since the storm as well. We're seeing more drug dealing (a guy overdosed on the street this week), and the demographic on my little block has changed. I understand that crime is and will continue to be a problem and of course, must be addressed. I have a friend who lived in an area in NYC that was rife with drug dealers for years. When Juliani came in as Mayor, he did the big crackdown (no pun intended) and got all the dealers off the street. This friend said that from that moment on, thefts and burglaries actually went UP, along with assaults on the regular neighborhood denizens. Sounds nuts right? But the explanation it turned out was that these drug dealers actually WERE the neighborhood watch in a way. That way being that they sure as shooting didn't want the cops showing up, so they discouraged in no uncertain terms, the petty burglars, etc. The woman says she now has to make a decision to move out and actually wishes the dealers were back. Horrendous story. A very difficult one to wrap one's head around, but a certain logic to it.

    Now I am absolutely not advocating letting blatant gang banging drug dealers run the blocks. Please don't get me wrong. What I am concerned about is that at this point everything I'm hearing seems so reactive as opposed to doing something before these kids wind up as drug dealers and gang bangers.

    Something else I just gotta ask:

    In the post about a neighborhood activism watch, you said, "The problem went away. Totally gone. Poof."

    Okay, and exactly WHERE did it go? Seems to me that when we start this dialogue, what never gets said is where are these people going to go? Good, we get them out of OUR neighborhood and send them where? Do they just migrate to the next block, the next state? Do we build even more prisons and continue to spend more than the GNP of most countries incarcerating them?

    I've just never seen "getting them out of my neighborhood or my city" as a reasonable view. A laser beam isn't coming to zap all the "undesirables" off the face of the planet, so they will have to go SOMEWHERE.

    Where is that?

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