It Takes All of Phoenix to Fight Crime
New program aimed at blunting the causes of violent crime - from the cradle to the workplace - is seen as a model for the future.
Within blocks of the I.G. Homes Boys & Girls Club here, crack houses thrive. Five rival gangs claim the run-down neighborhood - the city's highest-crime area - as home turf.
But as the evening sun reflects off mirror-skinned high-rises nearby, children and teenagers here relax in a different world. The club's new after-school programs offer myriad activities from arts to sports, computers to crosswords, and homework to hip-hop.
This club is part of a bold new citywide offensive against violent crime. After a decade of putting more officers on the streets, stiffening penalties, and building more jails, Phoenix residents came to the conclusion that crime and violence are not just police matters.
In response, city leaders this month rolled out 13 major initiatives aimed at uniting the entire Phoenix community - from parents to educators to social-service providers - behind a coordinated effort to stop crime before it begins. Such programs have been tried before in cities throughout the West, but Phoenix is carving out new territory by developing, funding, and implementing its plans without money from the US government.
"Phoenix is helping to spearhead a paradigmatic shift going on in American law enforcement," says John Calhoun, executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council. Calling the strategy the "most hopeful trend" he has seen in four decades, Mr. Calhoun says, "Cities have realized no one entity can do it. It's not just a program or series of programs. It's a whole new approach."
Expanded after-school programs such as the one here at the Boys & Girls Club are just one example of the sort of programs embraced by the Phoenix Violence Prevention Initiative. Others include health-care coverage for all children, new zoning laws on blighted and abandoned housing, and job-readiness training.
As with similar efforts in Denver and seven Texas cities, city officials here realized that comprehensive community involvement was the best way to cut crime. In Phoenix's case, the idea came two years ago.
Local police were exasperated by the fact that a neighborhood gang-eradication program failed to have long-term effects. While police were present, they could keep a lid on crime. Once they left, however, the drug-dealing and shooting resumed.
"We were so frustrated," recalls Mike McCort, administrative commander for the Phoenix Police Department. "We sort of felt we did our job, now where was everyone else?"
The result was the creation of five work groups comprising 300 individuals from a cross-section of Phoenix communities. Two years later, the groups presented the Phoenix initiative.
"The groups looked exhaustively at every area of life from the cradle to the workplace, including early family life, neighborhood influences, and even health issues," says Jack Henry, a leading businessman who participated in the groups. "It's not until you get a policeman, a resident, a businessman, a social worker, and maybe a court official all in one room at the same time, that everyone can see what has been missing in this puzzle."
The groups seized on national statistics showing that the overwhelming majority of youth crime occurs between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., then designed strategies to redirect young energy during that time - via sports, arts, and mentoring, for instance.
They also crunched numbers to see how much money they were spending on incarceration, then compared that with how much they would be spending if they funded programs that would theoretically cut down on crime. For example, a year of elementary-age mentoring costing $1,000 - or teenage counseling costing $3,000 - could save the city money if it prevented that child from later getting sent to jail, which costs $21,000 a year per prisoner.
"This is not a quick ....fix but rather a long-term solution," says Rick Miller, president of Phoenix area Boys & Girls Clubs. "We are trying to stay ahead of the curve while the city is still developing so that violent ways of growing up do not get firmly entrenched the way they are in older cities."
Now the sixth largest city in America, Phoenix has been growing at the rate of an acre per hour for more than a decade. What was just years ago considered a sun-dappled retirement mecca has become a sprawling megalopolis with burgeoning congestion and crime that comes along with it.
In many ways, it has been able to learn lessons from cities that have attempted to implement such broad-based, communitywide solutions before. In the early 1990s, seven Texas cities participated in a federally funded program to design such strategies, called the Texas City Action Plan to Prevent Crime (T-CAP).
Crime rates dropped dramatically in all seven cities - Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Antonio - although a parallel trend nationally made it difficult to claim T-CAP as the sole cause. Still, according to Terry Modglin of the National Council to Prevent Crime, "We do feel strongly T-CAP was a major contributing force."
Yet while T-CAP cities received grants and another Department of Justice program is currently giving money to some 20 other cities, Phoenix has relied on its own largess from the beginning. About $250,000 raised or contributed by five organizations has gotten the program through its first two phases.
One final step
The final phase will entail going to the City Council and state legislature for more money to proceed, initiative officials say. They will ask for between $2 million and $4 million. Many feel the conservative lawmakers of the staunchly Republican Arizona Legislature will not provide money readily. In fact, the state has been a national leader in building more jails and extending mandatory-sentencing laws.
But participants say they have laid an important foundation crucial to the future of the program.
"This process has helped this whole city realize that curbing violent crime requires much more than finding bigger and better ways to arrest someone and put them in prison, and using more money to do it," says Commander McCort. "It requires a whole community that understands what the problems are and is prepared to create preventives from the cradle to the work force, rather than build up reactive damage control."