Safety, crime, cities, and communities

Some new research on what caused crime to drop in the USA has some pretty cool insights for New Zealand wanting to grow better places to live – those “safer communities together”.

This podcast – A More Violent America – is a great listen: Princeton sociologist and criminologist Patrick Sharkey is being interviewed by host Chris Hayes on the research that unpacks what causes violent crime to go up – and down.

First we get a thoughtful summary of the different forces that shaped America’s post-war cities pretty swiftly into that dichotomy of “downtowns” (miserable crime-ridden hellholes) versus “suburbia” (clean, upright and prosperous) that even we know far away in NZ. And fast forward to 2020-2021, which has had a pretty horrifying uptick in people getting killed. But then the podcast delves into the bit in the middle: what brought the crime rate down in the middle years.

New York, Lower East Side, 1970s (Getty | New York Daily News Archive)

It’s a story we think we all know: from the terrifying urban crime peak of the 1960s-70s, the fall in American crime rates through the 1980s and 1990s was achieved by a massive mobilization in policing. You’ll be familiar with the thesis that it was the “tough on crime” “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” philosophies – and a huge taxpayer investment – fuelling a huge nationwide increase in policing, especially in cities, locking hundreds of millions of people into the US justice system, that brought down crime rates so significantly. “Tough on crime” policies are still popularly held up as the saviour that turned New York, the once quintessentially crime-raddled inner city, into one of the safest in the US.

It’s a pretty seductive cause-and-effect story. It’s driven by the policy machinery of both Republican and Democratic governments who competed during these decades to be tougher on crime and claimed the drop in crime as its result.

The missing bit of the story

But we learn that what’s not reported is that during these years of massive police and justice-system mobilisation to tackle crime, there was there was an equally massive mobilisation happening alongside, that went unreported.

soup kitchen run by a church community
Also crime-fighting, well upstream of the criminal act: Santa Teresita Church community volunteers running its soup kitchen (Rick Cruz | PDN)

Sharkey’s research has uncovered for the first time the immense mobilisation of crime-fighting effort at neighbourhood level in American cities: a mobilisation of community groups, of community capital, of community institutions. A mobilisation of ordinary, unglamorous people coming together to tackle violence, to fight crime, to reclaim for communities their public squares and playgrounds and streets.  And doing it by tackling the root causes of crime: homelessness, addiction, unemployment, social isolation, poverty.

The research has found that this massive mobilisation had at least an equivalent crime-reducing effect to the US’s mobilisation of policing, yet this contribution is almost entirely unknown.

Why do we only know about the policing side of the story?

It’s partly because the community activity is harder to quantify.  Tax spending by federal, state and municipal governments is generally well-documented in FTE and salaries, in the numbers of SWAT teams created and deployed, in arrests made, stop-and-searches undertaken, armaments purchased and so on. 

Riot-geared US police after Michael Brown’s murder (AP | Jeff Roberson)

In contrast, community-level activity has a major volunteer component, and volunteerism is notoriously hard to quantify.  And paid activity is often clouded in records as it’s an extension of the normal activities of churches, after-school programmes, youth groups, community centres – i.e. people just adding more on top of their regular work.  And funding that this kind of stuff does receive is often through variably labelled, sporadic grants or schemes – which (besides making it way harder to maintain workforces) just makes it harder to track, compared with consistently-recorded policing activity by police departments.

Harder to measure: community meeting about school zoning in New York. Centre: lead community organiser Tevina Willis. (Christina Viega | chalkbeat)

This massive community movement in the US is also little known because the popular narratives – especially through politicians including mayors like Rudy Guiliani – have talked up the policing story hard and often, framing it as “mobilisation” with connotations of massive machinery, military initiatives, huge scale.  The media have duly engaged with this framing as the main way to talk about crime, what causes it, and what reduces it. They largely haven’t covered the mobilisation, construction and deployment of community institutions, and where they did, it invariably got reported as occasional heart-warming anecdotes or one-off profiles of individual community leaders as “heroes”.  This makes us public see the community institutional responses as a scattering of little glowing stars across the darkness of a few neighbourhoods, contrasting with the image of the policing response as huge spotlit machinery sweeping through every American state and city, its military-scale offensives fire-hosing out the crime.

We’re left with a completely skewed picture of what was being done to fight crime, by whom, and the difference it all made.

Fight crime with community

In reality, however, that under-reported, lower-key, homespun mobilisation that grows and strengthens community institutions is just as important as any formal policing for creating “safer communities together”.

We New Zealanders need to think about this stuff. We’re grappling with questions of “how rich do you have to be to live somewhere” or “how much poverty and inequality are we OK with”. We’re having difficult conversations that start with public safety, and swiftly go to “who does crime” and “bringing crime into the city”. And we’re thinking about how to build great places to live, not just collections of dwellings, that see us being our best selves no matter our circumstances.

So it’s really pertinent right now to be aware of community institutions’ importance in helping build resilient, connected communities that inoculate us against the effects of bad times. And that community institutuions are essential complements to trusted, nuanced state activity like good policing and social safety-nets.   

Have a listen… what do you think?

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Banner image credit: Rosa Woods | Stuff

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