Parents, not politicians, can help crime problem

December 13, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

The new mayor of Los Angeles was being interviewed. The question was, could he keep his city under control? Public safety, schools and all the rest?

He confidently answered that his city wasn't out of control. And he was basically right. Most people in most cities are law-abiding and in control of their lives. At least after they get home and double-lock their doors.

As for the many problems of urban life, he had optimistic answers for most of them. But that's when he wasn't honest.

There isn't a mayor of a major city who can flatly say that he can maintain control.

Even Chicago's legendary Richard J. Daley, the last giant of urban bosses, couldn't be sure when hell was or wasn't going to break out. Or what he'd do.

No mayor since, and few before, had as tight a grip on his city as did the late Daley. But when rioting erupted, about all he could do was keep it from spreading and wait for the smoke to clear.

He was a hard-nosed, law-and-order, family-values type. But every day, people murdered, raped, robbed and inflicted the usual cruelties on their fellow man. There wasn't anything he could do about it.

There isn't a mayor of a major city who can flatly say that he can maintain control.

Not that he wouldn't have liked to. But a basic civics lesson:

A big-city mayor can do certain things well. The most important is getting the garbage picked up. That might sound mundane, but if the garbage piles up, the town stinks, you have rats and flies, and -- who knows? -- you might have plague, which is worse than a riot.

After garbage collection, the priorities are putting cops and firemen on the streets, teachers in the classrooms, and keeping the water running, the toilets flushing and the snow plowed from the streets.

He should keep the sewers unclogged, fill some potholes, rebuild the curbs and encourage business investment. If the taxpayers can afford it, he can throw in health clinics, parks, playgrounds, tennis courts and golf courses.

If he's smart, he hires people who know how to run a slice of city government and don't get caught stealing. And he figures out how to tax the voters in a way that won't enrage them to the point that they'll throw him out of office.

But what he can't do is make 1 million, 2 million or 3 million people treat each other civilly, much less discourage them from whacking each other on the head.

Nor can he force people to live by what some call traditional family values. You know: Get married, have kids and put some time into teaching the kids to behave themselves.

Those are choices individuals must make for themselves -- to be or not to be criminals, to raise or not to raise their kids properly. And it turns out that those individual choices, over which mayors have no control, are the two most deadly threats to cities such as Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune has just done a major study of why people move to the suburbs. Not surprising, the two biggest reasons are crime and schools.

So what can a mayor do about crime and schools? Not much.

The cops are outnumbered by the criminals. At times outgunned. The best they can do is come in after the deed is done and try to catch the bad guy. But when punks with guns are determined to shoot each other or rob you, about all the cops can do is clean up the mess after it's over.

The quality of public schools has less to do with the teachers, spending or the age of the school buildings than it does with the parents of the kids attending the schools.

I went to an elementary school in a blue-collar neighborhood. By today's standards, many neighbors were poor. But telling them that that would have surprised or even offended them. They had roofs over their heads and food on the table, so they didn't feel bad off.

But most families were stable. There was divorce, but most of the men paid child support. So kids went home, did homework and if a teacher said a kid was a goof-off, parents didn't sue. They leaned on the kid.

By the time we finished 8th grade, we had read "Les Miserables." The teacher figured that if we could slog through Victor Hugo's prose, we were ready to read anything.

Several of my classmates finished college. Others went into trades or small businesses. Only one became a criminal, a garage burglar. Not exactly big-time.

When I visited my old school a few years ago, the principal said at least two kids in the 8th-grade class would die of gang violence by the time they were 18. Others would be wounded or be the shooters.

There is little a teacher, principal or mayor can do about that. If anybody can, it's the parent or parents.

But now, we have parents who say: Hey, not me. It's the government, the schools, the mayor, the social worker. Anybody but me.

How is a teacher who has the kid -- one of many -- only a few hours a day supposed to teach him how to read while giving him values his parents ignore? How is a mayor, busily getting the snow plowed and the budget balanced, supposed to teach somebody else's kid that it's not nice to shoot for a sports jacket?

I don't know the answers. Nor do mayors or presidents, regardless what they say.

And by the time someone does come up with answers, most of us will be long gone.

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