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Bettering neighborhoods to fight violent crime

By Lynn A. Curtis / October 9, 1981

As we debate issues of violence and pre vention, the following realities should be kept in mind. Reported major crime has roughly doubled and doubled again over the last two decades in the United States. It is primarily a phenomenon of large cities, disproportionately committed by young minority males, and disproportionately concentrated in ghetto-slum, inner city, and barrio neighborhoods.

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Fear of crime is among the top concerns of American citizens. In recent years, national polls often have found that the issue about which Americans are most concerned is crime. Frequently, it is ranked higher than even a concern with inflation or unemployment. In inner city areas, where so much crime occurs , personal security at home is the number one concern of residents. It has moved ahead of food, clothing, employment, and health.

By far the greatest proportion of all serious violence is committed by repeaters, not by one-time offenders. The number of hardcore repeaters is small relative to the number of one-time offenders. Yet the repeaters have a much higher rate of violent crime and inflict considerably more injury.

Crime and fear of crime lead to neighborhood deterioration and abandonment. It is conventionally held that the physical deterioration of residential neighborhoods, disinvestment, housing abandonment, block busting, and the like encourage crime.

But the pattern works the other way as well: crime leads to deterioration. This means that a policy against violence also is a residential rehabilitation policy that can reverse population outmovement and losses of urban tax bases. Not only does crime result in residential and business outmovement, but population and manufacturing departures feed on one another in further accelerating abandonment and encouraging deterioration.

No explanations cover more than a part of the complex phenomenon called violent crime -- or urban disorder. It should be remembered, for example, that whites are associated with a larger volume of crime in the United States, even though rates are disproportionately high for the urban minority poor.

With a concern for these disproportionate rates and an agreement that the perspectives I have sketched account for more of what is happening than other perspective, the [Eisenhower] Violence Commission called for a policy response that balanced community regenerations as the first priority, with legal and criminal justice reform as the second.

Robert Kennedy's Committee and Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime ultimately called for mobilization of the poor to help themselves. Yet the Committee was dismayed by "the absence of demonstrated indigenous leadership in slum communities." At the same time, however, the Ford foundation started to build such leadership -- through, for example, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and the Woodlawn Organization. In 1967, the President's Crime Commission urged neighborhood self-help as a way to supplement over-taxed police forces -- and to return communities to an earlier time when neighbors looked out after one another more than is common in today's increasingly anonymous urban communities. Similar recommendations were made by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and the Violence Commission.

In response to Commission recommendations and the state of the nation's neighborhoods, the 1970s saw a number of public sector neighborhood anti-crime programs. Some examples of success started to emerge. Yet, in spite of their potential, these public sector programs today are being cut back or eliminated in the name of ostensibly overriding economic policies. Now, at least, it is up to the private sector to pick up the slack. Groups which have already succeeded in organizing against crime need to be brought together with groups which want to try. Modest startup resources are necessary.

The new Eisenhower Foundation intends to accept this responsibility. We intend to facilitate:

* Indentification of and investment in the core of natural, indigenous neighborhood leaders.

* Establishment of block watches, patrols, escort services and related ways to increase social cohesion and a sense of territory.