'Safe' America unrealistic, but a 'safer' one possible


January 03, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Though last week I wrote about the magnitude of the crime problem in America, you should not get the impression that there is no solution nor even that we are now living through America's most dangerous era.

In the 1850s, in a single 12-month period, a total of 44 murders were recorded in Los Angeles, then a town of only 8,000. That works out to one murder for every 182 residents.

In 1990, there were 991 murders in Los Angeles, but it was a city of 3.5 million. Which works out to one murder for every 3,531 residents.

In other words, your chances of surviving in Los Angeles today are nearly 20 times better than they were in the 19th century.

Feel any safer? No, I didn't think so. Well, how about this: The term "hoodlum" originated in San Francisco in the 1860s to describe sadistic juveniles, who roamed the streets not only robbing and beating their (usually Chinese) victims, but branding them with hot irons and slitting off their ears and tongues.

Or this: In the speech that brought him to the attention of the public, Abraham Lincoln, speaking in Springfield, Ill., in January 1838, addressed the most important issue then facing the nation. Slavery? Naw. Lincoln spoke of the increasing danger in the streets of the cities and in the countryside of America and the "increasing disregard for law that pervades this country."

But was there a time in our history, especially modern history, when Americans felt reasonably safe?

Yes: the quarter of a century following the end of Prohibition in 1933.

In that period, crime rates were either stable or in decline, and the fear of crime was relatively low.

The death rate from homicides dropped 50 percent between 1933 and the early 1940s (despite John Dillinger and those like him) and rape, robbery, assault and burglary declined by one-third.

And while crime began to rise somewhat after the end of World War II -- young men, the most violent segment of the population, returned home -- it remained well below the levels of the '20s and early '30s until the great crime wave of the early 1960s began.

Three reasons stand out:

1. Because of the poverty and mass unemployment of the Depression, Americans felt they were all in the same boat. Hard times created a sense of national community.

2. The inspirational leadership of Franklin Roosevelt made previously excluded groups feel as if they were being incorporated into mainstream American society and had a stake in its future.

3. World War II gave Americans a sense of unity and purpose.

Nobody today wants another Depression, nor another world war, nor can we expect another FDR.

But those things in current American life that build a sense of community, purpose and belonging may also reduce crime.

A few weeks ago, Kurt Schmoke co-authored an article in the New York Times that sketched his ideas for crime-fighting in America.

Schmoke used the depressed Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore as an example:

City government and residents map out a plan to "reclaim the neighborhood." Residents and police work together. New housing is built with federal support. Local residents get the building jobs. City services are provided "in accordance with the community's sense of its own needs."

And, after all that, does crime plunge in Sandtown? No. One thing that struck me about Schmoke's article is how modest his claims are: "The struggle continues, but Sandtown's crime rate has leveled off, and where the city has been most active the streets are safer."

Note: Not safe, but safer. Not a drop in crime, but a leveling off of the crime rate.

Schmoke says the four elements America needs to effectively fight crime are: custom-designed solutions to each problem; communities controlling their own fate; partnerships between community, police, and other parts of the government; and creative crime-fighting techniques, including towing away of abandoned cars, painting out graffiti, fixing street lights and a police/community partnership to fight gang crime.

And if we manage to accomplish all that, will the age of Aquarius begin in America? Will there be harmony and understanding? Sympathy and trust abounding?

Probably not. But it might be a nice start.

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