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Democrats Can Win by Confronting Crime
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 next year’s election…
Cherelle Parker became the first woman elected mayor of Philadelphia this week, in part because of her tough-on-crime positions. She’s a progressive Democrat and beat five other Democrats in the primary (including one endorsed by both Bernie and AOC) before cruising to victory Tuesday.
Her platform was straightforward and almost sounds like Rudy Giuliani back in the 1990s: hire 300 more police officers, fix broken streetlights, remove graffiti, fix up dilapidated buildings, and empower the new police on the street to stop pedestrians they believe may be committing a crime.
“At the time” she first made those proposals, her website notes, “many in the city, including some of those running for mayor now, were convinced that a plan that calls for more police would be political suicide. But she did not take cues from the loudest voices calling to defund the police, instead talking to and listening to people in communities across the city and taking action.”
There’s an old saying that, “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” Research, though, finds it’s not true at all: people’s attitudes toward punishment don’t change as a result of their experience of crime. Excessive sentencing like we saw brought forward by Newt Gingrich and signed off on by Bill Clinton in the 1990s don’t reduce crime and actually makes social problems worse.
Confronting crime does, however, cause people to become more supportive of enforcing laws — even minor laws — that then reduces crime overall. And all across America people are coming face-to-face with crime — particularly minor crimes associated with homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction — at rates that are stirring political discontent.
There’s a huge difference between Cherelle Parker and Rudy Giuliani, even if both support more cops and stricter enforcement of “quality of life” crimes as well as going after major crime. It’s a distinction that many Democrats reflexively miss.
“More cops” doesn’t have to mean more racist cops: good hiring, management, and accountability for police can help weed out the authoritarian types who are often attracted to policing, replacing them with police officers who truly see their work as to “protect and serve.”
Stopping pedestrians who appear to be up to no good doesn’t mean harassing minorities for the pure fun of it, something cops in Giuliani’s New York City were famous for. Police can be respectful while still — within the boundaries of the Constitution — keeping our streets free of the kinds of petty crime and harassment that devastate a city’s sense of livability.
If Democrats in general, and President Biden in particular, don’t take this opportunity to show real leadership on crime, they could be in a world of hurt in next year’s election.
This crime problem is real and not just GOP propaganda. Much of it is a leftover product of the Covid pandemic and its disruptive psychological and economic consequences, and some is driven by the explosion in housing costs (the Fed reports 17% of Americans are behind on their rent this month), 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 awhile back 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 an online police report with the city of Portland and offered video of the burglar, the report went unanswered and expired.
I know four people (two in my family) who’ve had five cars and two bicycles stolen in the past two years: in each case, the police said they lacked the resources to try to find either the vehicles or the thieves.
I saw a man stealing a car near my office a few months ago and called 911 (here in Portland they’re referred to as “Homeless Ubers”: people steal cars and then abandon them when they get to their destination). The phone was still ringing five minutes later as he drove off and I hung up, disgusted. The Portland police wouldn’t have had the resources to do anything about it anyway: they’re stretched so thin they can barely enforce traffic laws.
There have been multiple shootings reported within a mile of us in the past year. 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 actually shooting at people.
The headline this week in our statewide newspaper, The Oregonian, says it all: “Police took 23 minutes to respond to gunfire under St Johns Bridge, then left. They found a woman dead 32 minutes later.”
And, of course, this isn’t even remotely unique to Portland.
The website nextdoor.com has become pretty ubiquitous across America and four 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 and taken their purses and wallets.
Folks on nextdoor.com and Facebook 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.
The hot new thing is for people to steal a car, use it to bump somebody on the freeway, and when they pull over rob them. Stolen cars are now so ubiquitous in most US cities that it’s a common sight to see vehicles lacking license plates, something that would have drawn an immediate police reaction just a decade ago.
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.
Portland finally passed an ordinance banning daytime camping on city property: today it’s being challenged in court by a group that’s correctly pointing out that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has already found, in Boise and Grants Pass, that when there aren’t enough beds in a city, that city can’t forbid people from sleeping on the streets and sidewalks.
Part of the solution, of course, is to do something about America’s housing affordability crisis, as I’ve written about before. (There are far more empty properties in America than there are homeless people: residential housing should not be an investment commodity.)
That, however, would mean taking on giant real estate investors and New York hedge funds and, since five Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery, that’s a near political impossibility.
Another part of the solution is to triple down on resources for the mentally ill and drug addicted: the challenge with that is it costs money and is considered “social spending” and Republicans will mercilessly browbeat any politician who wants to spend more of that kind of money.
So, across the country cities are looking like something out of the Third World, people are afraid to let their kids and grand-kids play outside (we’ve repeatedly found syringes in our front yard from homeless drug addicts camping in a nearby park), and the private security business is booming.
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.
This state of perpetual urban 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 much of it is probably a temporary Covid-caused blip and, even at its worst, major crime statistics now are far better than they were 20 years ago.
But try telling that to somebody who’s been a victim of these “minor” and “quality of life” crimes.
A homeless schizophrenic recently chased Louise for about a city block, screaming incoherently and finally throwing a half-full water bottle at her. He lives at a nearby homeless camp where he’s probably terrorizing the unfortunate people there. 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 occupied a dog park we used to visit was, until just recently, 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 were diminished by pre-vaccine Covid: that disease killed more cops than who died in the line of duty in 2020, and older cops who were 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 pushed marginally stable people over the edge; although the economy has recovered, many of them have not. Homelessness has exploded across the country just as the Supreme Court struck down the federal housing eviction moratorium.
All too frequently 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 anymore 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 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 repealed it during his first year in office, leading to an explosion of mentally ill people creating, for the first time since the Republican Great Depression, significant homeless populations. He followed up two years later 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 what was left of 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 who run banks and insurance companies 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.
Americans deserve to be safe in their communities and there’s nothing “liberal” about supporting a system so brutal and dysfunctional that its only answer to housing unaffordability is to let people sleep, defecate, and die in the streets.
Cherelle Parker has figured out that one needn’t let racist cops terrorize minority communities in order to keep them safe. Law and order can co-exist with compassion and genuinely progressive values.
Democrats need to learn from her example and step up with big, significant, and effective anti-crime and pro-housing programs now, or the GOP will eat their lunch next year.