In a culture dominated by chase scenes and shootouts from cowboy movies to cop shows and even the nightly news there is an overwhelming tendency to view the crime problem one-dimensionally.
It’s all handled at the point of a gun. You tell the bad guys to put their hands up. You shoot the ones who don’t and lock up the rest. Then you go home and chuckle at Sipowicz on “N.Y.P.D. Blue.”
With crime statistics falling sharply in many cities around the country, the inclination is to believe that tougher policing is the primary cause, that some 1990s version of Dirty Harry is the reason some of the meanest streets are being transformed.
The police in many cities deserve a great deal of credit, but a more accurate reading of recent crime-fighting successes is more complicated.
“It’s very difficult to summarize,” said Paul Evans, the police commissioner in Boston, which has had remarkable success in curbing violence, particularly gun violence, over the past couple of years. No juvenile has been killed by a firearm in Boston since July 10, 1995.
“If there is one word that I would use to describe what is happening, it would be ‘collaboration,”’ said Evans. Boston’s success has been the result of an intense collective effort by the police department, religious leaders, local community groups and private citizens.
What is being learned (but not yet widely reported) in city after city is the powerful role that changing attitudes at the community level are having in the fight against crime. Big-city residents fed up with the violence that has plagued their lives and stolen so many of their children are exhibiting a greater willingness to become involved in anti-crime initiatives, and to work both directly and indirectly with the police.
This community involvement combined with smarter and more aggressive use of the police and substantially longer prison terms for violent offenders appears to be the key to success in fighting crime.
“What we are trying to do is keep kids alive,” said Evans, as he described Boston’s focus on juvenile crime. “There are some kids who, obviously, have to be taken off the street. But we had to develop strategies beyond just locking kids up.”
Chuck Wexler, who heads the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, said: “Everything we’ve learned is that simply arresting people without involving the community in the overall effort is counterproductive.”
That is how the police come to be seen as an occupying army, he said. It breeds misunderstanding and resentment.
“What is significant,” Wexler said, “is when you have an ad hoc community group in Kansas City, or the ministers’ Ten-Point Coalition in Boston standing shoulder to shoulder with the police in a particular neighborhood, saying this isn’t simply a police problem, this is a community problem. That is what is most effective.”
Jack Levin, director of the Program for the Study of Violence and Social Conflict at Northeastern University, said: “My sense is that in Boston it is the community members who have made the biggest difference. The clergy is doing an outstanding job. They provide spiritual guidance, but they also supervise and monitor and guide these kids who otherwise would be raising themselves after school.
“And there are other efforts. Businesses are offering jobs and in some cases real career opportunities. I have students who go into neighborhoods to do tutoring and mentoring and peer mediation. There are gun buyback programs. There are even clergy in some of the churches doing symbolic toy gun buybacks with 5- and 6-year-olds.”
Similar efforts by community leaders and neighborhood residents are under way in cities across the country. In some cases they are coordinated with the police, in many cases they are not. In most cases they escape the attention of the wider public.
The people involved in these efforts are, in Levin’s words, “the forgotten heroes in this war against crime.”