Opportunity Knocks

One common response to crime is to retreat into blissful ignorance, to turn the page quickly when newspaper headlines refer to mass murders or to a child abduction in a distant state. but ignorance is a significant risk factor for becoming a victim of crime.

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I live in a sunny, picturesque neighborhood of San Francisco called Noe (Noh-ee) Valley. It has quiet streets, magnificent views, four coffee bars, three bookstores, two bakeries, two parks, a half-dozen fine restaurants, the church featured in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act, and lovingly restored Victorian and Edwardian homes. In many ways, Noe Valley is an urban oasis where people of astonishingly diverse backgrounds live shoulder-to-shoulder in surprising harmony: owners and renters; young and old; families and childless; straight and gay/lesbian; Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish; and white, Asian, and African-American, including recent immigrants from France, Thailand, China, and the Philippines.

The neighborhood’s popularity and tranquillity have driven housing prices sky-high, but many residents choking on rent or mortgage payments believe that they have purchased reasonable safety from crime. As I overheard one woman say to another outside our local Starbucks coffee shop recently, Noe Valley is a place where a single woman can feel safe going out alone after dark for a decaf latte. It’s a good place, she added, to raise a family.

I agree–my little corner of the cosmos is a reasonably decent place to raise a family. But anyone who calls Noe Valley “safe” is living in a daydream. I know because I’m a devoted reader of the police column in our monthly neighborhood newspaper, the Noe Valley Voice. In a typical month, our 100-block neighborhood experiences a few burglaries and car thefts, one or two muggings or sexual assaults, and a half-dozen acts of vandalism. (Actual neighborhood crime figures are undoubtedly higher; the police column covers only reported crimes.)

The Noe Valley Voice police column describes local crimes in considerable detail. Last spring, a man in his teens armed with a handgun held up another man in mid-afternoon in front of the corner store within spitting distance of my front door. The gunman fled on foot right past my house. More recently, three men (one with a gun) held up a corner store

five blocks from my home, but only a block from the spot where my 8-year-old son catches the school bus. Within the last two years, one neighbor’s new Honda Accord was stolen, and another’s Mitsubishi suffered a smashed window and electrical damage resulting from a stereo/tape heist. Another neighbor lost two TVs, two VCRs, and a stereo in a home burglary. Last December, the DA’s office announced that a priest at St. Paul’s, the Sister Act church, was under investigation for allegedly embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the parish kitty. Last year, a local realtor was shot to death in his office four blocks from my home. Finally, the other night, a neighbor called to say she’d seen a creepy guy lurking around her front door, and would I please come out and make some noise to send him on his way, if he was not already gone? He was.

Now what do you think of my sunny, picturesque neighborhood? Would you venture out alone at night? Would you pony up the $479,000 my neighbors four doors down are asking for their 3-BR, 2-BA Edwardian? Or would you rather take your hard-earned nest egg and move to the suburbs, where everyone knows it’s safer? You might try Petaluma, the charming town an hour north of here where American Graffiti was filmed. . .and where Polly Klaas was abducted and murdered in October 1993. Or Grass Valley, a lovely, historic mining town in the Sierra foothills. . .where two 16-year-old girls were murdered last summer near a remote teen hangout well-known to locals but not to outsiders, strongly suggesting a resident killer. Or Concord, an upscale suburb an hour east of San Francisco, where in 1987 my beautiful, free-spirited, 21-year-old cousin, Melissa, was sexually assaulted and knifed to death shortly after stepping off a BART train.

One hundred years after historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier, most Americans continue to believe that they can pull up stakes and get a new start in a better, safer place somewhere else. Many people who live outside of urban America seem to believe that God grants personal safety beyond city limits. Every time a grisly horror unfolds in some far-off corner of the country, the papers always quote the locals as saying, “Things like that just don’t happen here.” But “crime can happen anywhere,” says Wilbur Rykert, Ph.D., a former Michigan state trooper who directs the National Crime Prevention Institute at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “Where was Michael Jordan’s father robbed and murdered? Out in the boonies. Crime is everyone’s concern.”

Of course, some places have more crime than others. I live about a mile from two different hotbeds of crime–probably closer to crack-gun-gang territory than most Mother Jones readers, but still far enough away so that for me, and I daresay for the vast majority of you, moving somewhere else wouldn’t take us much farther out of harm’s way. Which means we’re all too close to crime for comfort. What can we do?

One common response is to retreat into blissful ignorance, to turn the page quickly when the headlines refer to blood and gore. But when it comes to crime in one’s own neighborhood, ignorance is not bliss. It’s a significant risk factor for victimization. That’s why each month, the first thing I read in the Noe Valley Voice is the police report. Most criminals commit their crimes within a mile or so of where they live, according to Rykert, so every crime in my neighborhood represents a potential threat to me and to my family. I’m by no means alone in my fascination with neighborhood crime. According to Tonda Rush, president of the National Newspaper Association, similar police columns are among the most avidly read sections of the 4,000 community newspapers they represent. Why? “Because,” she explains, “any crime that happens next door to me is a major crime.” The conventional wisdom is that crime is worse than ever, that the good old days have been blown away by drug dealers’ Uzis.

However, a careful look at the crime rate shows something truly astonishing: Beyond headlines describing the new (and very scary) younger-than-ever face of crime–11-year-olds gunning each other down for Air Jordans–the good old days are now. The crime rate has actually been falling slowly but steadily for 20 years, and currently it’s lower than it has been at any time since 1973, when reliable statistics were first compiled. This remarkable decline has occurred despite the growth of the violence-plagued drug economy, the cutbacks in social services, and the millions of guns sold (and stolen) over the last two decades. The drop in crime has been consistently underreported by the media, but it comes from the Census-Justice Department’s twice-yearly victimization surveys, begun in 1973 to supplement FBI statistics.

According to Census estimates, in 1973 there were 35.7 million rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and thefts. By 1992, crime had fallen 6 percent to 33.6 million. Some criminologists say the reason for the decline is one that rarely makes it into the great national debate: demographics. They contend that the crime rate is contingent upon the number of young men in the population. During the Depression, hard times took a bite out of the birthrate, and by the time that generation of young men became adolescents, many left the country to fight in World War II, a big reason why the 1940s gained a reputation as an era of comparative safety on the streets. Then came the post-World War II baby boom. By the mid-1960s, “juvenile delinquency” had become a major problem. The baby bust followed, and by 1973 the crime rate began falling.

But for several years now, the birthrate has been rising. “You don’t need a crystal ball to predict a rising crime rate in the first decade of the next century,” says Richard H. Girgenti, New York state director of criminal justice. “Demographics have always been the best predictor of future crime.”

Overwhelmingly, street criminals are young men. More than 80 percent of those arrested are male. Men aged 15 to 24 account for 40 percent of all arrests, and men 15 to 34 account for 70 percent. Why? Because no one makes a career out of street crime. Criminals rob and steal on and off for a few years until they grow up and make a startling discovery: Considering all the costs and benefits, the income from crime versus the risks to life, limb, and freedom, a job–any job, even one at the minimum wage–pays better.

For street criminals, crime is a grubby, risky existence. In 1992, the average mugging netted $672 in cash and property (watches, jewelry, etc.), the average burglary $1,278, according to victims’ reports to police. Those numbers are almost certainly inflated. Many victims pad their losses, gleefully stealing from insurers. Meanwhile, thieves must sell stolen property at a substantial discount to unload it quickly with no questions asked. Assuming, I believe generously, that crooks net 50 percent of what statistics say they steal, a criminal from one of the crime hot spots near me would have to pull eight burglaries a month just to afford rent and groceries in San Francisco’s comparatively low-rent Mission District. But my neighborhood has only two or three burglaries a month, not even enough to support one burglar at poverty level.

Given their youth and lack of education, street criminals are typically people with little competence in the adult world. In addition, says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., organization specializing in criminal justice policy, “Half of all violent offenses are committed by people intoxicated on alcohol and/or other drugs.”

Street criminals are not masterminds. They go for the easiest available targets. That’s why people aged 15 to 34 account for the majority of crime victims–in about two-thirds of all violent (non-murder) crimes and three-fifths of homicides.

I was mugged at age 24, a demographic cliche. Though a Phi Beta Kappa college grad, I was still basically a stupid kid. As I skirted a park while walking home alone from a friend’s house around midnight, two black teenagers suddenly appeared, stuck a gun in my back, and snatched my wallet. I lost $80.

My home was burglarized the following year. (My wife and I left a window unlocked, and I believe a smarmy neighbor hit us.) But I haven’t been victimized since. That’s another demographic cliche: Victimization statistics clearly show that risk declines steadily with age, as we become older and, often in spite of ourselves, wiser. But ironically, while the risk of becoming a victim plummets with age, fear of crime rises. I’m more anxious about street safety now than I was 20 years ago, even though I haven’t had a problem in two decades. And I’m very nervous about my children’s safety. I’m not alone. A recent Gallup Poll commissioned by Parenting magazine showed that 54 percent of parents feared their children might be kidnapped. A child’s actual kidnapping risk is one in 300,000, about the odds of being hit by a pop-up at a major league baseball game.

Because fear grows with age, a declining crime rate offers cold comfort. As we grow older and more cautious, we feel the streets are meaner than ever–even when it’s clear that they’re not.

Liberals blame crime on poverty, racism, and lack of educational and job opportunities, which leave people so bereft of hope that they fall victim to anti-social rage. The conservative line is that the ACLU has hog-tied the police and forced the courts to coddle criminals when we ought to lock them up and throw away the key.

Both sides also blame crime on the breakdown of the family, but for different reasons. Liberals maintain that a lack of childcare, social services, and affordable health care turns the disadvantaged into vengeful victims. Conservatives insist that liberal secularism–sex education and opposition to school prayer–has rent the nation’s moral fabric.

Political progressives dismiss the pro-prison argument with one quick statistic: In 1980, there were 139 prisoners per 100,000 Americans; this figure had doubled to 373 per 100,000 as of last June, when the number of state and federal prisoners topped 1 million for the first time. “More than ever,” says sociologist Marvin Wolfgang, a professor of criminology and law at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, “we are locking ’em up and throwing away the key. Does anyone feel safer? I don’t think so.”

But conservatives have a point: Punishment can be an effective deterrent when it is immediate, certain, and severe. Touch a hot stove once or twice, and you stop doing it because the punishment meets these criteria. But the criminal justice system does not. Prison sentences are neither immediate nor certain, thanks to the little detail of innocent until proven guilty.

So conservatives dump their karmic eggs into the severity basket. Crime, they argue, is a rational choice, and criminals will stop choosing it when the potential cost (decades in prison) outweighs the potential gain ($402 from the average convenience-store robbery in 1992). Hence their “three strikes and you’re out” initiatives.

Surprisingly, however, some thoughtful conservatives disagree. “Swift and certain punishment,” says noted conservative criminologist James Q. Wilson, a professor of management at the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA, “is more effective than severe penalties.” And long-term incarceration is incredibly expensive, about $20,000 a year per prisoner, estimates Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. Keeping prisoners locked up costs $30 billion a year. “We could send them all to college for less,” he says.

What about the liberal view? Being a person of the left, I’ve tried to make myself believe that poverty and racism cause crime. I’ll venture that they contribute to some people’s crimes, but guess what? Leading liberal criminologists remain unconvinced. Wolfgang, a liberal who has worked as a consultant to many anti-poverty programs, says: “There is no consistent correlation between poverty and crime. The studies go back 100 years, and they show only a weak correlation at best. Most poor people are law-abiding, and many rich people break the law.”

Poverty alone may not cause much crime, but both liberal and conservative criminologists agree that a few pilot programs developed to combat the culture of poverty have shown some promise for crime prevention. Wolfgang points to a half-dozen intensive Head Start-type programs around the country. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich., for example, reduced lifetime arrests by 50 percent, and boosted its students’ high school graduation rates and adult earnings. Even Wilson, the conservative, agrees that these programs have improved their participants’ lives. But he argues that the crime-terrorized public is in no mood for costly social work that takes a decade to produce even modest results.

As for racism, the left’s other hallowed cause of crime, I confess to considerable confusion. African-Americans have, of course, endured awful treatment, and continue to suffer discrimination that would enrage a saint. But they are not alone: Early Chinese immigrants were virtually slaves, and until recently, they were victims of cruel discrimination. Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II, and emerged after the war to find their homes and businesses stolen. Yet victims of anti-Asian racism don’t fill our prisons. Young black men do. Even allowing for racist police who arrest more innocent black men than innocent members of other racial groups, still, African-Americans, who comprise only 12 percent of the population, account for 30 percent of all arrests.

Black men are also disproportionately crime victims. Compared with the general population, black men from age 12 to 24 are almost 14 times as likely to meet violent death. Jesse Jackson recently said that black men kill more black men each year than the total number of blacks whites lynched during the entire period from Reconstruction to the present day.

On the street, to avoid assault, I do my best to avoid knots of young men. But most of all, I avoid young black men. I doubt there’s an honest white liberal who acts differently. Does that make me–us–racist? Or prudent? Or both? I honestly don’t know. But, statistically speaking, to behave otherwise tempts fate. Some African-American leaders seem to be coming to a similar conclusion. With black-on-black crime decimating their communities, a few are beginning to suggest that instead of fighting racism to reduce crime, perhaps black people should fight crime to reduce racism and, at the same time, to secure their own safety.

A confession: Your author has a criminal past. I never did anything truly awful, but if I’d been caught and convicted every time, I might be serving a life sentence today under California’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out law. I don’t know what causes Crime with a capital “C.” But I know what caused my own crimes–a strange combination of impulse, alienation, and opportunity. I committed my crimes driven by a momentary impulse I can’t really explain. I consider myself a thoughtful person, but I don’t recall thinking much about my criminal escapades. I just did them. I believe everyone experiences criminal impulsiveness. How else can you explain affluent executives padding their expense account or cheating on their taxes? What else explains a priest embezzling?

I committed all of my crimes, predictably, from age 15 to 25. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I felt disconnected from the adult world. There were too many damn rules, too many restrictions. Then Vietnam came along, revealing what I considered egregious hypocrisy on the part of the elders who could send me off to die. When Henry Kissinger, the strategist behind the bombing in Southeast Asia, won the Nobel Peace Prize, I felt alienated. Of course, poverty and racism are also alienating, and I believe they play a role in some people’s crimes, but not in mine.

Personally, I think opportunity is the key to crime. What poor black kid in his right mind would keep mugging people if he could pad an expense account, or bilk savings and loan investors, or embezzle from a church? The poor schmuck mugs because he has no opportunity to commit more lucrative, less grubby crimes. With the exception of murder (which usually involves family or acquaintances), the vast majority of crimes are opportunistic in nature.

Impulse, alienation, and opportunity. I seriously doubt that the left or right, the church or state, the family or schools will ever rid us imperfect human beings of our criminal impulsiveness. I see it already in my son. Not long ago, he swiped some money off our kitchen counter that had been left for a baby-sitter. Why? “I don’t know,” he said. “It was there.”

I also seriously doubt that the alienation engendered by youth, poverty, racism, or Bill making the basketball team over Jim can ever be eliminated. As a person of the left, I abhor all the nefarious “isms,” and want to see liberty, justice, and single-payer health care for all. But I’m not holding my breath. And I confess considerable discomfort with letting people off the hook simply because they’ve been victimized in one way or another. Who hasn’t?

That leaves reducing criminal opportunity as our best bet for controlling crime. As Robert Frost wrote: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Good dead bolts help, too. That’s why all successful crime prevention programs focus on opportunity control–street smarts to prevent assault, and “target-hardening” to prevent burglary.

Successful crime prevention programs also work hard to foster neighbor-to-neighbor communication, which helps minimize alienation. Many leftists I know pooh-pooh neighborhood watch programs because they smack of Big Brother, involve cooperation with the police, and don’t do anything about poverty and racism. But the fact is, they work, which is more than I can say for the political rhetoric of either the left or the right. Personally, I can take or leave neighborhood watch signs. They’ve proliferated to the point that they’ve become meaningless. But neighborliness helps minimize the alienation that nudges some people down the wrong road.

On my block, most of us know each other by name. We know (more or less) who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s home and who’s away. A few months ago, an old friend came to visit whom I hadn’t seen in years. Standing on my front deck, he asked about the neighborhood. I quickly sketched miniprofiles of most of the neighbors in the immediate vicinity. He was astonished that I knew so many of them. I replied that I make it my business to know all the young boys on my block, and I make damn sure that they know me. I want them to feel some neighborliness toward me and mine when they enter their crime-prone years.

My belief in neighbor-based crime prevention received a major boost recently when, for the first time, two economists developed a complex economic model demonstrating that neighborhood action is a crucial factor in controlling crime. George Akerlof and Janet Yellen, a husband-and-wife team from the University of California at Berkeley, showed that community action–specifically block groups in close contact with the police–raised the “cost” of crime to the criminals by increasing the certainty of punishment.

In the last year or so, we’ve had a fair amount of turnover on our block, with several homes and rental units changing hands. According to a recent census analysis, my block’s transience is by no means unusual–20 percent of the nation’s households moved during the 15 months before the 1990 census. For renters, the figure was 40 percent. That kind of turnover ratchets up the general level of alienation and is a big reason why picking up stakes and moving elsewhere doesn’t buy safety. New arrivals disrupt the area’s sense of community, and they bring the very crime-breeding alienation they left their former communities to escape.

I’ve now lived on my block eight years, and I’m enough of an old-timer to feel concerned about the recent turnover. So recently my wife and I organized a little potluck dessert party in honor of the new arrivals. Most of our immediate neighbors came. There were no formal crime prevention speeches. There didn’t have to be. Everyone was an urban survivor (knock on wood), in love with San Francisco and Noe Valley, but also perpetually, realistically nervous about crime. The neighbors knew exactly why we’d invited them, and thanked us for taking the initiative. They dutifully signed in with address, phone number, and the names of everyone in their household. (A few days later, I distributed copies up and down the block.)

At the potluck, two neighbors with new cars were concerned about auto theft. One had bought The Club, the bar that locks across the steering wheel, interfering with a thief’s ability to steer. The other had installed a car alarm. We teased the alarm owner because it had blared a few false alarms. The teasing was good-natured, but its message was clear: Those false alarms annoyed the hell out of us.

I have nothing against silent alarms that ring at private security companies, but for home and car security, on-site siren alarms are fundamentally wrongheaded. False alarms alienate the very neighbors alarm owners depend upon to call the police. Safety springs not from obnoxious sirens that indicate entry, but from shrewd target-hardening that prevents entry in the first place. I have neither a home alarm system nor metal grilles on my street-accessible windows, but I’ve taken the safety precautions police recommend. The typical burglar is willing to work for only a few minutes to break into a home or car. Any more, and the target loses its appeal. It would take a concerted effort for a burglar to break into my home, more time and trouble than the intoxicated young turkeys who commit breaking-and-entering crimes are willing to invest.

I confess that I’ve taken no special precautions with our two cars, but I take comfort in car-theft statistics. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry group in Washington, D.C., car thieves gravitate toward newer, “sexier” cars, like the Jeep Cherokee one neighbor recently acquired. They don’t have much interest in our cars, a 10-year-old Ford and an 8-year-old Plymouth. In fact, my neighbors’ new cars protect mine, because any thief with half a brain would choose theirs.

Our new-neighbors party was an enjoyable low-key affair. After the car security discussion, the conversation turned to gardening, skiing, and the sale of our corner store, a key meeting place on our block. Kids ran around, people laughed, and all enjoyed chatting with the neighbors they knew and meeting the new arrivals. We all knew that any of us could be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time at the wrong end of some nut’s automatic weapon. But we also knew that a great deal of our crime risk was centered right here–in our neighborhood, on our block. If nothing else, I believe that concern about crime is a good excuse to party.

But I party with both eyes open. I like my neighbors, but you can’t be too careful. After everyone departed, I checked all our door and window locks–just to be sure.

Michael Castleman is the author of eight books, including Crime Free: The Community Crime Prevention Handbook.


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