Sunday, September 25, 2011

Don't Shoot - Ending inner city violence

Street drug dealing and gang violence isn't the only neighborhood crime problem. But it's at the top of the list.

I met David Kennedy a few years ago and liked him immediately. He's a professor at New York's John Jay College. He has no PhD or MA, yet today he is a leading voice in crime prevention policy. When he speaks about drug dealers and gang violence, people listen. I certainly do. Every time I've seen him he strikes me as the smartest guy in the room.

The New Yorker says he's onto something. Newsweek magazine says he is the only person "who has ever come up with a consistently viable and cost-effective strategy for helping the inner city" drug and gang problems.

If you don't know David's work on Boston's Cease Fire anti-gang project or the High Point, NC, drug dealer project, then you need to get caught up. No better way than to read his latest book -Don't Shoot.

I haven't read it yet but David is one of the few people whose book I can recommend before I have.

Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point fame, says: "Don't Shoot will do for the fight against violence what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did for the environmental movement a generation ago".

When someone like Gladwell says that, it's time to pay attention.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Explaining homicide

I just came across a Wall Street Journal article debunking a poverty and crime theory called "blocked opportunities". Puh-leese! For op-ed writers, debunking crime theories is like stealing lolipops from tots. Simple, unethical and just silly.

Take criminologists (like me) who say routine activity patterns (road networks, travel habits, bar locations) produce higher/lower crime opportunities like crime hotspots. The routine activity theory suggests crime drops by disrupting routine activities and targeting those hotspots with arrests, CPTED, dealing with prolific offenders, etc.

The most comprehensive demonstration of a routine activity approach is Britain's Crime and Disorder Act, 1998.

The Act links crime prevention accountability to municipalities, creates partnerships among relevant agencies, sets prevention goals, and uses multiple strategies to tackle crime hotspots.

Convincingly, since 1998 UK police agencies have been finalists at the International Problem Oriented Policing Award program every year but two. They've won the coveted award eight times.

Some claim routine activity goes beyond street corners to whole countries. They predict Western countries have more goods, more cash for illicit drugs, more things to steal, and will therefore have larger criminal opportunities. This results in higher crime rates than in poorer countries. Voila: poverty doesn't cause crime - routine activities do. The International Crime Victimization Survey, they say, proves it.

It doesn't.

Why? Because that is a logic error called the non sequitur. Consider this:

I constructed this graph from that same survey. It shows the US homicide rate plummeting throughout the 1990s. Canada's rate dips slightly. In the UK, where the Crime and Disorder Act has been in place for the entire period, homicide flatlines and then slightly increases.

You could say this is because crime opportunities between the three countries is worse in the UK. That is unlikely. The US has more gangs, drugs, guns and plenty of crime opportunities.

It is more likely routine activity theory just breaks down at this scale and predicts nothing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The 3 lies gangs tell - the Liz Elliott story

Preventing crime and building safe communities is what counts. SafeGrowth is all those things. What happens if, in spite of best efforts, your home is burgled or a family member suffers violence?

What then?

Most people want payback. Mistaken for justice, it's really eye-for-an-eye, what the ancient Babylonians called vengeful retribution. Gandhi was fond of saying an eye-for-an-eye leaves everyone blind.

What do we actually get? The offender is removed from the community, tried, sentenced, and sanctioned (or not). LIttle, if anything, is actually returned (restored) to the community. Victims rarely feel satisfied. Without some kind of restoration, the offender eventually gets out of prison often worse than when he or she went in. That's the dilemma.


Restorative justice (RJ) answers this dilemma. It still removes violent offenders so they cannot harm others. But RJ expects offenders to repair the harm they've caused. It provides a chance for the neighborhood and victims to participate in resolving the harm. It helps restore victims and offenders back to a more healthy and positive life.

For details on how, a good RJ source is HERE. Another is HERE.

The RJ story is best told by Liz Elliott, especially her YouTube story about the 3 lies gangs tell. Watch it HERE. Also, check out her recent book, Security, With Care.

RJ expert, Liz Elliott

Disclosure: Liz is a friend from a long time ago. She became an award-winning criminologist specializing in RJ. We were students in the same criminology program. Back then PhD students occasionally hung out and shared stories.

One afternoon, boating up the Fraser River with a bunch of other grad students, I remember being impressed by the ethics of Liz's stories. At a time when my own academic experience thirsted for examples of integrity, her stories showed me what moving forward should look like. We might have been on water, but her values were so well grounded.

She built an academic career on that ethical ground. A quote in Secure reads "the idea is to become more competent and engaged as citizens in our homes and communities, so that we need to rely less on formal government institutions to address our problems." Exactly right Liz, that's it!

Yesterday, Liz Elliott passed away. A light has gone out.

Thank you Liz for your stories. You'll be missed by many.

Me included.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Graffiti-mess-of-the-year award goes to...

...and the winner of Graffiti-Mess-of-the-Year award goes to (drum roll...)

Victoria, British Columbia!

I've spent the last few days visiting neighborhoods across this fascinating city. I wrote a similar graffiti story in this blog a few years back including research on curbing the problem. The best prevention resource available is probably the ICA guideline Graffiti: Local solutions to local problems - guide books for design professionals.

None of that seems to have mattered. Victoria still reeks of graffiti tags like some biblical plague of locusts.

True, there are much bigger cities with more tags. There are also more troubled cities where gangs tag their hood like medieval warlords claiming turf, what Atlas calls "offensive space". Victoria is none of that, which in my mind makes it so inexcusable.

Victoria is a mid-sized, world-class city with booming tourism. It has high quality-of-life, good schools, and spectacular natural scenery.

Victoria also suffers persistent and pervasive tagging far beyond what I've seen in other cities of similar size. I'm not speaking of street art that the BC Graffiti website calls "momentary pockets of expression".

I'm not describing political graffiti that might make the odd alley risqué - even bohemian.

I'm talking about butt-ugly paint-spray for no reason but vandalism. Case in point: the underground BC Graffiti website has 54 graf photos from cities across the province - 39 are from Victoria (to be fair, those pics show much higher quality graffiti than I saw the past few days). Obviously in graf-writer world, Victoria is still Queen.

Why doesn't Victoria regulate the sale of paint-spray cans as elsewhere? Should we blame the catch-and-release British Columbia court system? The lack of restorative justice opportunities? Do we blame the decline of problem-oriented policing training there?

Victoria cannot be blamed for a lack of trying. The national anti-graffiti "Tags" conference ran here in 2009 (sadly, and obviously, to no avail). Conference lessons either didn't work or fell on deaf ears.

There are diligent paint-outs to clean the mess. Victoria also has an anti-graffiti program.

Unfortunately, all this is for naught. Tags are everywhere.

Has this city passed some graffiti tipping point after which preventive tactics fail? Does such a tipping point exist? It does for other types of crime (now THAT should be the topic of research).

One bright spot: neighborhood pole painting projects.

It's a neighborhood capacity-building initiative in which residents adopt hundreds of telephone and power poles and paint them with murals. Those poles were graffiti free and kind of cool.

If only we could get that kind of creativity on post boxes, walls, benches, signs, windows…