Monday, March 30, 2009

Neighborhood Safety - The Guardians and the Vanguard

GUEST BLOG Gerry Cleveland is an attorney and also an expert in youth violence prevention. He is a former police officer and an educator with experience in troubled high schools. Gerry wrote this response to my February blog "Preventing Crime in LA". I invite you to respond to Gerry's last question...

The police focus in community development, in my view, is both dangerous and ill conceived.

The guardians are any society exist (from Aristotle's onward) for the sole purpose of enforcing an established status quo. These guardians (modern day police) should never be asked into the vanguard and leadership of any societal movement. Unless we expect renaissance abilities from them and we are prepared to equip our police officers with political and social philosophy training, then they should always take rear guard, supportive actions.

Similarly, those most avaricious of creatures, the corporations, should also never be expected to take on a societal development or redevelopment role. By doing so, we ask the lion to watch the lamb.

The current problem with community development is that we are asking the wrong people to do the right job.

What ever McDonnell [LAPD Deputy Chief] or Bratton [LAPD Chief] do is, in my view, irrelevant until we have the right forum, with the appropriate thinkers to lead them. What we need and what we currently lack in North America is what is known as the 'guiding mind' for what Saville wants: fundamental social reform.

The leadership we want won't, sadly, be coming from our famous Chicago politician. As hopeful and inspiring as Barack Obama is, he remains a creature not of reform but rather of politics and that failed infrastructure.

Yes, he has a background in community development, but his history teaches us, (at the Harvard review and in the Senate as two examples) that he will be more of a guardian than a reformer.

So, the question is this: who will lead this reform that we all know we need? Will it be someone like Muhammad Yunus who provides loans for Indian villagers - especially women - to engage in local commerce. I suspect so.

Sadly, I think we require great turmoil to effect great change. Until we are collectively forced to look beyond current, ineffective ways of living together, nothing will change. Looking to guardians and the maintainers of the status quo - like police and governments - to lead that change seems hopeful, but naive.

Perhaps this so-called global crisis will be the spark that will destroy a mean spirited, divisive economic system. Let's hope so.

Perhaps what we suffer now will lead us to better days ahead. Any ideas on what next Greg?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Eyes on the prize in policing and reform

It is impossible to talk safety and prevention and not talk about cops. I am conflicted whenever I see stories of ineffective, obsolete, or just bad policing, as I did this week.

My conflict arises from my own belief in the decent goodness for people who choose an often impossible and unforgiving profession. I am committed to police reform. But it seems our policing system is a legacy of a pre-digital age. Recent crime trends, it seems, are not.

Ultimately policing is a vital, but very small, part of the public safety story. It's a story that cannot be told without participating residents.

Consider my February blog with the LAPD video about this very point.

watch video

Today the news in Vancouver is flooded with yet another story about a tragic Taser death during a violent arrest. We are told by the Taser crowd the technology works and saves lives, though apparently not in this case. We are also told Tasers are too often abused during arrests. Who to believe? Tasers are a newer technology with promise. But the medical research on them looks less like facts from sources and more like factoids from sourcelings. What to believe?

Yet again we hear calls for police reform reverberating through the media.

read Vancouver newspaper story

No one is immune and Vancouver is by no means alone. The public wants something done, mostly they want safer neighborhoods and less fear of violence. Which brings me to my duh moment - our goal: We obsess on the means to an end (policing, tasers) and forget all those means are but a tiny part of how we actually get to our public safety end.

Of course the police use of force is important. By the nature of the job it cannot go away. During violent arrests it may be needed. Of course we should make sure police training is done properly and the technology does what it says. Of course we need police reform, especially reform in training/education and the political gumption to stick with it.

Yet the goal should be to keep our eyes on the prize - neighbors working together in functional places to make vital and safe streets.

The questions we should be asking:
How to get neighbors to work together in a positive way?
How to create functional neighborhoods with social activities?
How to build places where people feel safe and participate fully in community life?
How to more effectively do community development?

As I read the latest crisis it is easy to obsess on the vicissitudes of policing when things go bad. I agree we must never forget, or fail to prevent, deaths in and from police arrests. All lives are precious. But policing was created specifically for crime prevention and public safety. Do police tactics, resources, and training focus directly and daily on crime prevention and safety? No! When they don't, they need to.

That is the prize that matters most.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

George Orwell, CCTV and the Ring of Steel

How many times have you turned on TV news and watched security camera images of crooks robbing a convenience store? Or CCTV images of street violence broadcast on the evening news? Security cameras have been with us for many decades, usually inside buildings and vulnerable underground parking lots.

Ever since the UK installed thousands of cameras on public streets a decade ago debate has raged whether they prevent crime or infringe on our privacy. Or both. Offical eyes watching our every move!

Since the early 1990s the UK has led the way. Today over a half million cameras have watched public places all around London. This is the so-called ring of steel. Orwell would roll over!

Obviously we cannot consider city safety until we look at the issue of CCTV in public places. Does it work? Are there better answers?

The most authoritative voices I have found are David Farrington and Brandon Welsh. Most of their UK research shows conflicting results. Half the time public CCTV can have a positive (but small) impact. The other half the time, no impact at all.

read the Farrington study

Later they report street lighting has equal crime prevention impact to cameras in downtown areas, but these effects were greater in the UK than in North America.

read the Camera vs Lighting research

This is all music to the ears of those practicing Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design - CPTED. The CPTED folks have said for years building a livable and vital downtown, where a wide range of people spend their leisure evening hours, is the best way to improve the natural visibility.

I remember when public cameras were installed in in Sudbury, Canada over a decade ago following some downtown bank robberies. I recently read a Washington Post article on a similar trend in US cities

read the Washington Post article

None of which answers the questions: Does CCTV really work to prevent crime downtown? Are there better ways to prevent crime?

One thing we know for sure:

Every time we watch a robber or street violence on CCTV, the crime is already underway. Cameras might help police catch bad guys later. But those cameras did nothing to prevent crime in the first place.

If they did, we wouldn't be watching them on TV!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Harnessing the Creative Class to control crime

The basic premise of SafeGrowth:: Crime is best tackled within the neighborhood by tapping into and harnessing the creativity and energy of the neighborhood dweller and functional neighborhood groups.

A provocative interview just aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - CBC. It is difficult to get anything quite this succinct through the U.S. media. It is about how cities can succeed as vibrant (and I would argue crime resistant) communities by tapping into the knowledge workers and the creative class.

If you've read Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone you'll recall how cities are hollowing out due to the privatization of public space, the massive growth of private property zones, private governance, and the decline of community.

This has huge safety and security fallout. Two examples: the rise of private policing and the spread of security cameras in public places.

This past Sunday the CBC aired an interview with famous urban studies scholar Richard Florida. He says the economic crash is a social re-set on how we will think and live in the years to come. He predicts which cities will lose and which cities will win. He is - as you might imagine - controversial. He is also necessary!

His most provocative line: the firms and cities that will succeed after the recession are those who tap into and harness the creativity and energy of the knowledge workers.

Florida on YouTube

Monday, March 9, 2009

Slums of the Future - The Suburb

I was asked this week to do a radio blog show March 12, Thursday at 2PM eastern time (see details below) The only topic I could imagine important enough was radical common sense and creativity. They seem the ultimate human commodity whenever crisis arrives at the door. Take, for example, the creation of future slums.

I've been saying for some years the American suburb - that monotone, energy-sucking, environmental monstrosity so embraced around the world, is becoming the slum of the future.

A few years ago some of my grad students in Sacramento drove to an apparently quiet suburban street and did a video cam drive-by. What they captured in their film was subtle, yet foreboding.

As the scene opens the houses on the street look suburban normal...with a few twists: Multi-family duplexes, cement lots replacing lawns, drapes covering window. What they discovered behind the drapes was another story: Overcrowding, high crime rates and fear off the charts. Gang shootings were not uncommon.

We were miles from downtown. Yet it felt like an urban slum.

This week in The Atlantic Monthly magazine there are series of articles about the economic collapse. There are two you should read: Richard Florida's article How the Crash Will Reshape America (see Florida's article) and Christopher Leinberger's article The Next Slum (see Leinberger's article) .

Florida believes the current crash will not look much like the Great Depression, but he does think it will reshape our urban geography. Some cities will flourish, some will not. The key to success will be the creativity of what he calls our Creative Class.

Leinberger takes the argument beyond. He thinks the crash will hasten the demise of the suburb. Goodbye to McMansion. Hello extinction. He cites data suggesting that 40% of today's large-lot homes will be vacant within 15 years.

This seems like a good time to talk about how we come out of these times. That's what our blog radio show is about.

The blog is moderated by my friend Deborah Osborne - an internationally recognized expert in crime analysis and former analyst with the Buffalo Police. She has been chair of the Police Futurists International and research fellow at the Center for Strategic Intelligence Research.

If there is anyone who thinks strategically and innovatively about the future, it is Deborah.

Join us live Thursday at 2PM eastern time.

Click here for details

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Designing Out Crime? Not!

San Antonio, Texas doesn't sound like a place where urban designers can see how to build successful places for the future. You might not think so, but you'd be wrong.

I just spent time exploring the fabulous San Antonio Riverwalk. It is not what you might expect to find near the Alamo in western Texas. 25 years after planning began it has become a lively and vibrant connector between businesses, restaurants, shops, and apartment/condos in the heart of the city. It runs along a redirected canal-like waterway of the San Antonia river. Lined by Cyprus trees, much of it lies below city streets.

I can't speak about other parts of San Antonio. But this part is a joy to experience. It was very busy with walkers, joggers, and tourists. Riverwalk looks like a jewel in the city. An excellent example of neighborhood planning (formal and informal).

Is it a taste of Amsterdam in Texas? Perhaps! Both are similar in city/region population size. The Riverwalk architecture and arched pedestrian bridges echo feelings of Hollands' romantic canal walkways.

But stepping outside the Riverwalk area, I wonder!

Amsterdam, with 26 murders in 2007, makes it among the safest larger cities anywhere. Despite complaints by locals of drug excesses, the liberalized drug business in Holland ends up with fewer drug users than in the U.S.

San Antonio, in spite of recent declines in violent crime, suffered 122 murders in 2007. For US cities that's middle of the pack and it also has a nasty rep for property crime.

Numbers like these, of course, say nothing about culture, demographics, and access to handguns - all part of the urban crime picture. Numbers also don't tell the whole story. But here they do tell one thing, in case it still needs saying:

Urban design and planning alone cannot do the job to make places safe.