Excuses for Crime


September 15, 1992|By HAL RIEDL

Now we have it on authority that law enforcement causes crime. The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, of Alexandria, Virginia, reported the other day that, by its reckoning, on an average day in 1991, 56 per cent of Baltimore's black men between the ages of 18 and 35 were in prison, on parole or probation, were being sought on arrest warrants or were awaiting trial.

The center's report attributes this figure -- 14 percentage points higher than the comparable figure for the District of Columbia, where the percentage of black residents is even higher than Baltimore's -- to the war on drugs.

''That war has been racially biased and its casualties have been young, male and African-American,'' says the report. ''In effect, African-American men have been made the enemy.''

News reports dutifully collected responses from such experts on crime as Mayor Schmoke, NAACP chapter president George Buntin and criminal defense lawyer William H. Murphy Jr. Each put his hand on the elephant figure of 56 per cent and reported that what he was feeling was racism. It seems that law-enforcement pays an unfair amount of attention to young black men.

Mayor Schmoke has removed his daughter from the public school where a male transfer student earlier this year shot the security guard who was trying to take away his beeper, and enrolled her in private school. Mr. Buntin joined State Senator John Pica in calling for martial law in selected Baltimore neighborhoods awash in drugs. Mr. Murphy makes a handsome living doing his level best to put young African-American criminals, like the ones who murdered his own father-in-law, back on the street.

The NCIA report should be read skeptically. It compares strictly local arrest figures for 1991 -- 11,000 of the 13,000 people arrested for drugs were black -- with national estimates of drug users, said to be only 15 per cent black. Clearly drug use in Baltimore is a lot blacker than that. If we're talking local crime statistics, we ought also to be talking local rates of drug use.

There is a zany logic in the implication that if the police made fewer arrests there would be less reported crime. Otherwise the report merely confirms what every sane Baltimorean already knows, that far too many of our young male black fellow citizens are attracted to criminal behavior.

Visit the decent neighborhoods where young black men have camped out on the street corners to sell cocaine. Speak to the law-abiding residents of the Murphy Homes, where only a few weeks ago Jamaican drug lords were checking I.D.'s before folks could go into their own buildings.

Ask the families and friends of children caught in crossfires whether the police are doing too much to get young black men. The double standard widely felt in high-crime black neighborhoods is exactly the opposite of the NCIA complaint: that a degree of violence is permitted that would be intolerable in majority-white areas -- not that there is too much police attention to young black men, but too little.

Mired in the mayor's habitual muddle about these issues is a sense of the hideous waste of talent and the blighting of hopes that criminal involvement inflicts on the lives of young black men. The short answer to this, unfortunately, is that it's their choice.

The dirty little secret about crime is that it's a tremendous amount of fun, until you get caught. Then it behooves you to trot out the sociological alibis -- poverty, racism, the lack of legitimate employment opportunities, blah blah -- to get your case/probation/sentence over with so that you can get back to the street and get on with the fun. Remember that the number of arrests represent only a small percentage of the crimes actually committed.

This is the reality in the face of which African-American leadership is completely bankrupt. Because black crime lends itself to the ugliest racial stereotypes, there is a powerful urge to join the NCIA in making excuses for the worst members of the black community; defending the predators and forgetting the weakest members -- the elderly, the children and the mothers, who have little hope of moving away from the hoodlums.

Memo to Messrs. Schmoke, Buntin and Murphy: If you don't like the stereotypes, you had better do something about the crime.

Hal Riedl is a free-lance writer.

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