Saturday, March 24, 2007

Confronting City Crime

I've been reading with great interest the blog of James T. Harris, a Sherman Park resident and local radio show host, among other things, who writes about social and political issues and the city. He's conservative in his political and social leanings, which means I often disagree with his points to some extent, but I find his experiences interesting and his writings compelling and passionate.

Most importantly to me, he's focused on the lynchpin issue of crime in the city. This is an incredibly important matter, one that's been killing Rust Belt cities for 40 years now. It's a social disease eating away at a substantial portion of our population, damaging our neighborhoods, our cities, and contributing to the loss of historic architecture and urban environments.

To head off the current crime wave, he's advocating for flooding the streets with police officers, in a strategy not unlike what we're doing in Iraq at the moment. Unlike a lot of younger liberal-minded folks who seem to harbor a distrust of the police, I think it's a good idea. Milwaukee's police force is stretched far too thin; they need many more officers on the street, both responding to calls and doing the preemptive work of getting involved in the neighborhoods they keep watch over -- the latter a task that's had to take a back seat to emergency call response.

However, if it's the sole solution, it will never be more than a band-aid. Crime needs to be addressed at its root causes, be they poverty, joblessness, drug addiction, a pervasive culture of helplessness, apathy or entitlement, or shear malice.

Yes, there are some people who are simply bad to the core and will likely never be able to exist in society. Lock 'em up, fine. But most people are a lot less on-or-off, black-or-white than that. Give them opportunities, give them training and guidance and a supportive environment and a path to follow, and they can succeed.

And I want to see this not because I'm a bleeding-heart left wing liberal hippie (which I am) who wants to run every facet of other peoples' lives (which I don't), but because I want to live in a city where I can walk down the street at 9pm without worrying about getting mugged, where I can ride my bike through any neighborhood in town and not worry about being the wrong skin color or being viewed suspiciously every time I stop to take a photograph, where vital street life thrives, where beautiful old buildings of character and distinction are not left to deteriorate. My motives here are in part selfish.

(And in part, they are not: the poverty I've seen distresses me, and the disinvestment, disenfranchisement, and abandonment of urban neighborhoods and their residents I've seen sickens me.)

At the end of the day, we should do what works, whether that's more police presence, societal intervention, job creation, or -- most likely -- some wide-ranging combination of all these strategies and more, a multi-faceted strategy to confront a complex problem. Our decisions should be based not on social leanings or politics, but on what actually works. In a matter of such import, partisan bickering and finger-pointing is a frivolous distraction.