Worst of times for crime fighting
By James Alan Fox
Monday, October 16, 2006

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” wrote Charles Dickens in his classic, “A Tale of Two Cities.” His words are just as fitting today in describing a tale of two summits.

In recent weeks, our nation’s capital has been host to two national summits, both taking aim at violence. One was significant and thoughtful; the other was more show than substance.

Prompted by schoolyard tragedies, President Bush convened a Conference on School Safety, inviting hundreds of experts and regular folks, including a Columbine High survivor. Noteworthy was the absence of invitees with special interest and expertise on firearms.

Bush spoke passionately of the need for character education. The issue of gun control was never discussed.

By contrast, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national organization of police officials, held a National Violent Crime Summit, bringing together police chiefs, mayors and criminologists to examine street violence, particularly among youth and especially involving guns.

The summit report, released in conjunction with this week’s meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Boston, is an important document for all leaders--from those in Washington who have slashed federal funds for police to the Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates who have been sidetracked in the crime debate away from the critical issues of cops and armed robbers.

School shootings and street shootings offer a fascinating contrast, literally in black and white. School shootings--often called “a parent’s worst nightmare”-- are quite rare yet hugely publicized. Most have occurred in rural and small-town communities, impacting white kids.

Street shootings, rampant and on the rise, tend to occur in cities, chiefly involving black and Hispanic youth, both as victims and perpetrators. Failing to see a parent’s worst nightmare here, the White House has slashed federal budgets for assisting city police departments.

PERF’s document indicates that the spike in violence--especially robbery and homicide --reported nationally for 2005 was indeed a harbinger of more to come. Based on a survey of 55 cities, PERF found that violence continued to surge this year. How much more bad news will it take before we get back to the hard work of violence prevention and crime control? Sadly, resources are lacking, not just here in Boston but in many large cities.

The story of reduced police resources has been told before, of course, and has been the source of much concern by police chiefs and mayors from coast to coast. However, the untold story of urban/rural differences is both alarming and shameful.

From 2000 to 2005, the number of cops per capita may have dropped, but not by much. Nationally, police protection levels slipped from 2.5 to 2.4 per 1,000 residents, a 2.5 percent decline.

However, over the past five years, police departments in cities of over 250,000 had their ranks of sworn personnel shrink from 3.1 to 2.8 per 1,000 residents, a drop of 9.3 percent, while staffing levels for the remainder of the country remained virtually unchanged. Emerging again is a disparity of urban vs. rural, minorities vs. whites.

The same contrasts can be seen in our gubernatorial candidates and their public safety foci. Deval Patrick, having grown up in violence-torn Chicago, is pushing for more cops and fewer guns. Kerry Healey, raised in Daytona Beach, is noticeably silent on both counts.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.