Trayvon Martin case: What cities can learn

Cities like Sanford must improve their community-building to reduce the kind of fear that might have led George Zimmerman to confront a hoodie-covered Trayvon Martin.

David Manning/REUTERS
A neighborhood-watch sign stands near the gated community in Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26.

Like many Florida cities, Sanford was hit hard by the Great Recession. Many of its 54,000 residents, along with police, tried not to let a bad economy inflame racial tensions or worsen crime.

But then a month ago, George Zimmerman was patrolling his gated community as leader of a neighborhood-watch group when he fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

Questions still remain about this sad incident: Was race a factor? Who attacked first? How did Florida’s Stand Your Ground law influence the shooting?

For now, however, Sanford, like many cities, can draw this lesson from the incident: When people in a community fear each other, it is far better to build up community ties than to add more fear by increasing the police presence, forming more neighbohood-watch patrols, or loosening gun laws.

To use fear as an official deterrence to crime can only go so far to safeguard a broken community. In fact, it might even backfire by turning residents against police. Or, as may be the case with Mr. Zimmerman, the recent creation of his watch group and the addition of police patrols in his neighborhood may have contributed to his level of fear toward strangers, not lessened it.

Many cities have learned that the best way to fight crime is to bring people together, starting with things as simple as block parties, more sports and summer jobs for teens, or a healthy voter turnout for local elections. Mutual respect and even affection in the public sphere can reduce fear.

Examples of this approach are growing. Boston pioneered a technique in the 1990s by bringing church ministers and police together to persuade young people to avoid gun violence. Chicago helps ex-offenders meet up with neighborhood residents to restore their community bonds. Britain has begun to adopt some of these American methods after recent urban gang riots.

Yet tough economic times make it difficult for working people to be neighborly, go to community meetings, or engage with police and other officials. More residents are renters and thus not putting down roots. A neighborhood’s shift in ethnic or racial makeup can reduce trust and a sense of shared civic values.

Police, whose primary job is maintaining order, are often ill-equipped to bring a community together. They prefer to be more feared than to act as a nurturer of neighborliness. And when they welcome residents to act as their “eyes and ears” in volunteer watch patrols, that same problem is simply passed along – perhaps even to someone like Zimmerman.

Police can also do only so much to help a community appear “respectable,” such as fixing broken windows or preventing prostitution, panhandling, or homelessness. They aren’t very good at reducing the anti-snitching culture in many neighborhoods or the hero worship of drug dealers in others.

After the shooting of Trayvon and the nonarrest of Zimmerman, police were the first to be faulted. Pressure from the Sanford City Council forced Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. to temporarily step aside. But eventually Sanford, like many cities, will realize that broad community-building is needed to prevent similar acts of violence or to be better prepared to react to them.

Social justice beats out rough justice. And long before a call to 911 is needed, a call can go out for a community to come together.

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