A Crime Wave Could Take Down the Democrats in 2022

Democrats need to step up with a big and effective anti-crime program now, or the GOP will eat their lunch next year. Americans deserve to be safe in their homes and communities.

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Bill Clinton famously put 100,000 new cops on the streets nationwide, an action that de-fanged Republicans who claimed Democrats were “soft on crime.”  So far, nothing the Biden administration has done comes even close.

As a result, Republicans are highlighting rising crime rates around the country (often tied to local increases in homelessness), blaming it on Democratic mayors and the politically suicidal “defund the police” rhetoric from folks fed up with police killings of unarmed Black people.  

If Democrats in general, and President Biden in particular, don’t take this opportunity to show real leadership on the crime issue, they could be in a world of hurt in November 2022.

This crime problem is real and not just GOP propaganda.  Much of it is a product of the Covid pandemic and its disruptive economic consequences, but explaining “causes” is largely meaningless to victims who simply want action.

Anecdotally, as I noted in a recent op-ed about inequality and crime, a burglar tried to break into my house a short time ago and, when unsuccessful, went a few houses down and broke into a neighbor’s house, catching her in the shower while looting her home.  When we filed a police report with the city and offered video of the burglar, the report went unanswered and expired.

There have been multiple shootings reported within a mile of us in the past two weeks. Just down the road from us, a neighbor told us he saw what he believed was a homeless, mentally ill man walking down the street with a shotgun at 2 am. He called the police but was told nobody would be dispatched unless the man was menacing or shooting at people.

And, of course, this isn’t even remotely unique to Portland.

The website nextdoor.com has become pretty ubiquitous across America and two years ago most of the posts were about lost cats and offers of surplus zucchini from the garden.  Today, people are crowdsourcing how to catch the criminals who’ve broken into their houses, stolen their cars or assaulted them. 

In just the past few days, folks on nextdoor.com here in Portland have gotten together to find multiple stolen items including bicycles and cars — several were found at nearby homeless encampments — as well as posting pictures of burglars, snatch-and-grab thieves and people who’ve committed assaults.

Citizen “neighborhood watch” committees are self-organizing around the country, all while muttering that it’s time to “throw out the bum” politicians allowing this situation to emerge and fester.

When citizens begin doing the police department’s work — including neighborhoods around the country that are hiring private security because police don’t respond to anything but the most severe crimes — you know there’s a crisis.

And it’s happening from Seattle to Milwaukee, Chicago to Dallas.

This state of perpetual crisis is how life is lived in poor and developing countries; communities depend on private armed guards instead of relying on police. I’ve seen it in Bogota, Nairobi, Jakarta, Juba, Lima, Mumbai, Mexico City, Cairo, Bangkok, Manila, Colombo and a dozen other cities on multiple continents.  It’s a sign of cultural and political crisis.

And if they know nothing else, politicians know how to exploit a crisis. This will become a major political issue, even though it’s probably a temporary Covid-caused blip and, even at its worst, crime statistics now are far better than they were 20 years ago.

A homeless schizophrenic chased Louise for about a city block, screaming incoherently and finally throwing a half-full water bottle at her.  Reports of similar incidents are posted by the minute nationally across social media from nextdoor.com to Facebook and others.

Large parts of Portland are being cleaned up as the city gets vaccinated and back to work, but overall our city is still pockmarked with homeless camps; the one that now occupies a dog park we used to visit is dotted with stolen and abandoned cars and stolen bicycles, and drugs and assaults are reportedly common.

Local politicians across the country are feeling the heat:

“City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who rejected the mayor’s additional funding for the [Portland] Police Bureau earlier this year,” wrote Maxine Bernstein for The Oregonian, “now is vigorously calling for more police resources and this week said he wants to see a 20% reduction in gun violence in the next 15 months.”

Similar shifts are happening in city governments and police departments across the nation.  Police ranks that were diminished by pre-vaccine Covid last year, that disease killing more cops then who died in the line of duty in 2020 and older cops eligible for early retirement took the opportunity to get out before they got sick. Those police forces are now being rebuilt, but it can take as much as a year from the initial hiring for a police officer to complete their training and end up on the streets. 

Nonetheless, murders and shootings are at epidemic levels here and across the nation as the mental and emotional toll of a year of lockdown and the loss of 6 million jobs have pushed marginally stable people over the edge. Homelessness has exploded across the country just as the Supreme Court has struck down the federal housing eviction moratorium.

All too often the homeless themselves, human beings who are far more often victims of 40 years of trickle-down economics than villains, are on the receiving end of this violence.

Murder rates in Austin, Albuquerque and Pittsburgh have doubled and shootings and murders here in Portland are, according to NPR, five times higher than during the lockdown year of 2020 (when all crime decreased nationwide).

And while the official statistics for petty crime aren’t showing a huge surge, that’s almost certainly because people aren’t bothering to contact the police any more unless they need a report for insurance purposes; anecdotal sources like nextdoor.com and Facebook indicate a significant increase in all sorts of unreported crime.  

But even if people aren’t reporting crime, they’re sure talking about it. Much of that talk is rapidly turning political, and since most city’s mayors are Democrats, that represents a peril for the party nationally.

The Biden Administration has taken a step toward helping the situation by tweaking the authorizations in the American Rescue Plan (passed earlier this year without a single Republican vote) so billions from that federal program are now available to towns and cities to “fund both police and community-led violence intervention programs.”

But mental health and addiction services are stretched thin across the nation, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and set up by Reagan-era policies that gutted mental health services.  

Back in the late 1970s, President Carter pushed through the Mental Health Systems Act that expanded federally- and state-funded residential treatment facilities for mentally ill people as well as giving the mentally ill more options like local treatment clinics and the ability to self-administer medications.  

President Reagan not only repealed it during his first year in office, leading to an explosion of mentally ill people among our homeless populations, but followed up by cutting federal funding for mental illness by 30%.

The New York Times editorialized in 1981 that “deinstitutionalization has become a cruel embarrassment, a reform gone terribly wrong, threatening not only the former mental inmates but also the quality of life for all New Yorkers.”

In a 1984 follow-up article, the Times added: “The policy that led to the release of most of the nation’s mentally ill patients from the hospital to the community is now widely regarded as a major failure.”

The mentality ill, like most other marginalized and thus vulnerable populations, were among the first to lose their support networks and homes when Covid crashed the economy.

To this day, the funding and those facilities have not been restored to pre-Reagan levels and mentally ill people make up as many as a third of the homeless people sleeping on the streets.

There are some good steps being taken but they’re not widely known.

The Biden administration has rolled out a program to get illegal guns off our streets in an effort to reduce the current wave of gun-based crime and murders.  And they’re talking about cracking down on white-collar crime, hoping to eliminate the justification for everyday thieves that “rich people get away with stealing every day, so why’s it a big deal when I steal from them?” 

But effective and highly visible action is needed now to keep Americans safe in their homes and on our streets. And it has to be real and meaningful action, not just symbolic steps or over-reactive and gratuitously punitive stunts like the crime bills of the 1990s.

Democrats need to step up with big, significant and effective anti-crime programs now, or the GOP will eat their lunch next year. Americans deserve to be safe in their communities.

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