NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In Milwaukee, small disputes escalate to assaults and even murder. In Philadelphia, the rising homicide rate has so frustrated police that they're enforcing a 10:30 p.m. curfew on juveniles in South Philly. And here in the nation's capital, a series of brutal crimes prompted the police chief to declare a crime emergency.
An FBI report out earlier this summer pointed to a small but noticeable up-tick in violent crime in some cities, but statistics are notoriously hard to decipher when it comes to crime and often vulnerable to political manipulation.
This hour, we'll crunch the numbers and talk about whether we're trapped in a statistical anomaly or the rising tide of a crime wave, and we'll find out how some cities are responding. We want to hear from you as well. What's happening where you live? If crime's up, what's wrong? If it's down, what's working? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Later in the hour, we'll talk with the author of a new history of the adventures and influence of ambassadors. But first, crime in American cities.
And we begin with Marc Fisher, metro columnist for The Washington Post, who's been writing about violent crime here in Washington and about the city's response. He's with us from the studios at The Washington Post. Nice to you have you on the program, Marc.
Mr. MARC FISHER (Metro Columnist, The Washington Post): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: There have been some grusive - gruesome crimes in the city over the past several weeks, and officials responded with alarm. You've raised questions about whether that's warranted.
Mr. FISHER: Well, exactly. You mention statistics, and while you can actually work the statistics in almost any direction you'd like, the fact is that crime is considerably down not only in the past year in Washington, but really quite dramatically over the last five to ten years.
And so what we're seeing now is the annual blip in mid-summer crime. And also we are seeing a bit of a change in that there are more robberies in some very prominent places, especially where tourists go - along the National Mall, where there've been some very disturbing robberies and particularly a murder in Georgetown, a wealthy white neighborhood where a young white man was killed -and that has raised a whole bunch of race and class issues here in Washington, a majority black city where most of the homicides victim - most of the homicide victims and major crime victims are black.
So why is it now that only when there's some prominent crimes that get a lot of attention where the victims are white that it's suddenly a crime emergency? This has been a very divisive issue here, and actually, when you look at the statistics, it really is hard to justify the crime emergency except for the fact that this is an election year and politicians and police chiefs like to be seen as taking decisive action.
CONAN: Doing something even if that something may be, as you suggest, counterproductive.
Mr. FISHER: Well, the measures that the city has now agreed to take to fight this crime emergency are kind of the usual grab-bag of stuff, but also some new intrusions on civil liberties, such as using surveillance cameras, which are already quite prominent in Washington in the touristy and office parts of town, pushing those out into the residential neighborhoods where, I have to admit that people in those neighborhoods are clamoring for that. They think that the surveillance cameras will help them.
But the record so far is that neither the cameras nor a midnight curfew for young people has done anything to stop the stem - to stem the tide of violence. So now that the proposal is to move the curfew up a couple of hours to 10:00 p.m., it's really not clear that that will do anything.
We know what really does help is paying attention to why these kids are out there committing crime in the first place and also doing something about the size and the way in which you use your police force, and those are obviously much more expensive and time-consuming measures.
CONAN: You cited in your column a very interesting statistic about crime and juvenile unemployment.
Mr. FISHER: Yes. In fact, there's been a fascinating study that shows that youth unemployment and crime track each other in an almost remarkable way; if you graph it out, the two lines follow each other in lockstep. And so as we've seen a bump up in youth unemployment, we are seeing more in the way of some offenses around town.
But, in general, the numbers are down, and yet this hysteria that comes about when you declare a crime emergency - I mean, my goodness, we had Fox TV sending Geraldo Rivera here to do a piece on D.C. under siege. It does tend to snowball when you start using terms like crime emergency.
CONAN: And another factor that you pointed to in your piece was the - an example of what you describe as political correctness when the police chief in charge of the district in Georgetown, where it was a British tourist who had his throat slashed - his - the woman he was with was also assaulted - and the chief of police in that area, the local commander, made some remarks that got him into a world of trouble.
Mr. FISHER: Well, yes. The local commander said in a meeting with neighborhood residents that residents should really be the eyes and ears of the police and should watch out for people who look suspicious, and then he went on to say that it's unusual to see blacks in Georgetown.
Well, that raised quite a storm. First of all, it's not true. Most of the stores in Georgetown really wouldn't even be able to survive without their black clientele. But beyond that, it raised all sorts of hackles about racial profiling.
And that commander, as it turned out, was a guy who's deeply committed to racial harmony in the city, lives in a black part of town, sends his kids to an almost all-black school, and so on, and so he has now been reinstated.
But at every step of the way, we seem to be exacerbating these race and class divisions rather than trying to work to bring crime down in all neighborhoods and thereby perhaps move beyond some of those issues.
CONAN: And you suggest, in citing some resentment in neighborhoods where crime has never declined or at least where it continues to be a major problem, a couple of incidents in the white part of town and suddenly it's a major crisis.
Mr. FISHER: And that sends just entirely the wrong message when in fact there are many neighborhoods in Washington, in poorer parts of town, where people go to bed every night listening to gunfire, wondering if their kids will make it through the night, where there are regularly horrific incidents in which bullets pierce windows of people who are sitting innocently inside their apartments.
So there are parts of town where murder is something you'd live with on a daily basis. For this kind of hysteria to happen around one incident in a wealthy part of town is really quite disturbing.
CONAN: Marc Fisher, thanks very much.
Mr. FISHER: Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: Marc Fisher, metro columnist for The Washington Post. He joined us from the studios at that newspaper here in Washington, D.C.
Let's look a little more closely at the numbers. James Alan Fox is a fellow at the Bureau of Statistics as well as a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and a columnist for The Boston Herald. He joins us now from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. Nice of you join us today.
Professor JAMES ALAN FOX (Professor of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University; Senior Fellow, Bureau of Justice Statistics): Thank you. Good afternoon.
CONAN: According to these statistics, there's been a slight up tick in violent crimes, not everywhere, but in cities in like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and where you live, in Boston.
Prof. FOX: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: Is this significant?
Prof. FOX: Well, part of the reason we're seeing an increase is because we saw seven years of decrease. And were it not for the great 1990s crime drop when homicide, for example, declined by 50 percent in this country, we would not be wringing our hands about a four to five percent increase nationally and an up-tick in many cities. So part of it is sort of the ups and downs of crime. It's - I call it crime gravity. What goes up tends to come down, and what goes down tends to come up.
In fact, if you look at the cities that have the biggest jump-ups in a single year, most of the time they have a falling down in the crime rate the following year. In fact, I did an analysis where I looked over the past 25 years, and when a city experiences a 20 percent jump in murder, which tends to get people very excited...
Prof. FOX: ...there's two to one odds that the murder rate will go down the following year. So we tend to get very excited in the short-term by very short-term trends, and one year change does not a trend make. We tend to be very myopic, look just at this year versus last year and get carried away like Chicken Little did about a sudden rise in homicide, or in violent crime, when indeed, as Marc Fisher pointed out, we're a lot better off than we were 10 years ago.
CONAN: As you look at these statistics, in some cases, we're talking about very small numbers, so an increase from eight to 12 looks dramatic if you put it in percentage terms.
Prof. FOX: Yeah, but we're not really focusing on the cities that have such small population that eight to 12 will be noteworthy. We're also talking about cities like Philadelphia and Boston where the numbers are appreciably larger.
I mean, my city, Boston, it's frequently pointed out that in 2005, we had our largest number of homicides in 10 years. Well, part of that is because we had a very good 10 years, and we're a victim of our own success. The 75 homicides that the city of Boston had last year pales in comparison to the 152 we had in 1990.
And I don't want to say this is not worthy of concern. It is. There are certainly many issues going on right now, with budget cuts in programs for youth and lack of police resources, but it's not time - it's time to get concerned and get back to work at crime fighting, but it's not time to be alarmed.
You know, referring to this Chicken Little analogy - you know, the old fable where Chicken Little got carried away by a twig - of course, Chicken Little very easily convinced Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey and all his - all her friends that indeed the sky was falling, and that's sort of what happens when the media whips up people's worries and concerns and we start have emergencies called in places like D.C. But then, of course, in that old fable, Foxy Loxy -and I'm here being Professor Foxy Loxy today - recognized that it was just an aberration.
And so, I guess, the short answer is here, yes, crime is up, and we need to do something about it because there's reasons why it could continue to rise. So it should be a very loud wakeup call to go back to doing the very hard work of crime fighting and crime prevention rather than just going willy-nilly and implementing a whole bunch of ridiculous strategies like curfews that absolutely don't work.
CONAN: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Hugh(ph) is calling us from Oakland.
HUGH (Caller): Yes, hi. I don't know whether the statistics show anything about reasons for crime, but here in Oakland, where the crime has gone up, the other day on one of the local news programs, they were interviewing the parents of both a victim here in Oakland as well as one in nearby Richmond where crime is also going up.
And both parents of the victims mentioned that there needs to be more jobs for these inner city - some of these inner city kids. And they thought that - the parents themselves thought that was one of the reasons, and I wanted to know what your statistics show about that.
Prof. Fox: Well, in general, unemployment and crime rates do not track very well, because if you're really geared towards a life of crime and making a lot of money through criminal activity, you're hardly going to be dissuaded by a job flipping burgers.
But what is true about kids and jobs is that it just keeps them busy. And it doesn't have to be a summer job, for example, or an after-to-school job, it can also be an after-school program or a sports program, just something to keep kids off the streets and engaged in quality activity.
CONAN: Hugh, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. We're going to take more of your calls on this issue when we come back from a break. Again, the number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address: email@example.com. Is crime up where you live, and if so, what's wrong? If it's down, what's working?
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're discussing today an up-tick in violent crime statistics in several cities across the country. Our guest is James Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and fellow at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And, of course, you're welcome to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crime has so alarmed residents in the District of Columbia that, as we mentioned earlier, the city council voted to approve Mayor Anthony Williams' emergency crime package last week. The bill passed, but one member of the council opposed it. He's with us now, Councilman Adrian Fenty, with us by phone from the District of Columbia. Nice to have you on the program today.
Councilman ADRIAN FENTY (Councilman, District of Columbia): Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.
CONAN: People are scared. Muggings, a throat-slitting in Georgetown, yet you voted against this measure. How come?
Councilman FENTY: Well, I voted for the parts that were substantive: putting more police officers on the street and approving overtime. But, like a lot of legislatures, there was, you know, kind of a knee-jerk reaction because there was such an outcry to just do something, do anything, and we ended on an emergency basis kind of like adjusting our curfew policy in the city, approving surveillance cameras, things that are really unproven instead of doing what I think works in the city; short-term, putting more officers on the street, making sure they solve crimes and are more aggressive answering 911 and 311.
And then, of course, we really abandoned long-term solutions like you've been talking about on the show: getting these young kids involved in, you know, programs in their community to dissuade them from getting into crime in the first place.
CONAN: We should mention Councilman Fenty is running for mayor in this political year. Isn't a vote against a tough law and order issue - isn't that a little risky?
Councilman FENTY: You know, the greatest compliment, I think, you can give a politician or, you know, an elected official is, you know, that they make decisions without regard to the political calendar. That's how I've always tried to make decisions.
We can't just vote on things just to make people feel good. We have to do things that make people safe, and that - that's what I support, you know, putting more officers on the street, having a much more visible, aggressive police department, and then, again, long-term. There's just such a need, especially in the city, in the District of Columbia, to get these young people - I'm talking about kids under 30 who just have been involved in a life of crime - involved in either jobs or some type of rehabilitation.
CONAN: Let's get a...
Prof. FOX: A quick statistics here if I can add one.
Prof. FOX: Since - over the four-year period of time, 2000 to 2004, the number of police officers in this country has dropped by eight percent. Part of it were cuts in local spending from police. Part of it was the cuts in the federal cops program. But it's a big issue that many cities just don't have the police resources that they need and that they used to have.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Carol(ph). Carol with us from Louisville in Kentucky.
CAROL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
CAROL: I'm kind of dismayed by some of the speaking that I've heard on your show.
CAROL: Because everyone who's kind of going to point, we need to give these kids more things to do. We need to give these kids more activities. We just had two shootings, literally, across the river from where I live. The boy who supposedly has confessed to the crimes was in high school, he was on several sports teams, he was working part-time. Has anyone kind of paid attention to the fact that sometimes people are just bad?
CAROL: You know, there are some times that people are just bad, and you cannot have a policeman in everybody's house. And if you don't do the right thing from the very beginning - and I'm not saying that social problems don't pay - play a part in this - it's not going to change.
I mean, things are getting worse because people are getting worse, and people are getting worse because you have children being born into homes where the mother or the father, everybody's using drugs, no one is taking responsibility.
I mean, I feel like I'm very odd because I'm a very conservative, socially, African-American person, and what - when are we going to start (unintelligible) that people need to take responsibility for their actions and that people need to be responsible for their kids? You know, you don't need a curfew for 12:00 at night if parents are doing what's right. Because when I was that age, my parents wouldn't have allowed me to be out after 8:00 at night, 9:00 at night.
CONAN: Councilman Fenty, this seems to be more in your area, the politics rather than statistics. Go ahead.
Councilman FENTY: You know, it - even though she described herself as a conservative, I'm not sure if I disagree with anything the woman said, especially that last part about if you - about the reason people are becoming more bad, or at least more violent and criminally minded. Because, yeah, there's a lot of drug abuse, a lot of addiction. I mean, there's single-parent households.
So, yes, you - in big cities, you've got to crack down on crime, and the District of Columbia has a long way to go, as a lot of other jurisdictions do, insuring an active police force. But long-term, I mean, you could walk - you drive through our neighborhoods, especially in the lower income parts of the city, and you see, you know, five, 10 teenagers just standing around idle. If we don't address that issue, there's no way in the world you can arrest all those kids, so you've got to address it on the front-end.
Prof. Fox: Well, let me try to comment (unintelligible) parents, just a little bit. I mean, the caller's right that there are too many parents who are fairly negligent at their jobs, but most parents are well-meaning and would like to have a greater impact and role in their kids' lives, if only they could.
The reason why we have so many kids on their own in the after-school hours, for example, is because we do have single-parent homes and we have many, many two-parent homes where both parents have to work full-time. And indeed, we had welfare reform, and what that did is it took many mothers out of the job of watching their own kids into the workforce, so their kids are being ignored. Fundamental change that you're talking about...
CAROL: I don't believe that.
Prof. FOX: Well, it is true.
CAROL: I don't...
Prof. FOX: There's many women who used to be at home with their kids now are forced because of welfare-to-work programs to be out of the house, you know, working at some shopping mall and not watching their own kids.
CONAN: Carol, you were trying to say. I'm sorry.
CAROL: No. I don't believe that, because my parents both worked. My father was career military. My mother worked full-time. We had to have two people working in order to survive on the quote, unquote, fabulous incomes...
CAROL: ...of a military family, and we had things to do. We were expected to go home. We had chores to do. We had homework to do. Part of this is people not taking charge of their children from the time they're small. I go into shopping malls and I see very tiny children, two and three years old, slapping, fighting, kicking, you know, screaming, running around. Then the parents are saying, now, Johnny, please, don't do that. You don't ask children to behave well. You expect them and demand they behave well.
Prof. FOX: Well, it's true that...
CAROL: It starts from very young.
Prof. FOX: It's true that kids are very poorly supervised in this country, and what we need to do as a society is just - not just say, all right, parents your fault. You take care of the problem. We need to assist families, not assail them. And we need to have the kinds of activities and programs that can do the kind of job that many parents either can't do or, in some cases, don't want to do or don't know how to do.
CONAN: Carol, thanks very much for the phone call.
CAROL: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Councilman Fenty, before we let you go, one of the issues that came up in the - is this idea of more video cameras. And it's, as we've heard, many neighborhoods are clamoring for them. I think the city said, wait a minute. We authorized them; we only have four. But is this a good idea?
Councilman FENTY: It - I think the jury is still out, but I think there are some really time-tested ways of fixing the police - fixing communities of policing and public safety. I think a lot of residents want us to follow the New York model where the broken windows theory or zero tolerance was applied in the police department, letting police really police the streets aggressively. You don't want to exchange surveillance cameras, you know, for good old-fashioned walking the beat.
CONAN: Councilman Fenty, thank you very much.
Councilman FENTY: Thank you so much.
Prof. FOX: Could I just...
CONAN: Go ahead.
Prof. FOX: I'd like to compliment the councilman, if I can, for his strength of opinion here. He's quite right, for example, that curfews don't work. And you know why they're so popular is that people most affected by curfews, which are juveniles, don't vote. Believe me, if juveniles had the vote, politicians would not be pushing curfews.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Eliza(ph) in Princeton, New Jersey. Do the crime-rise figures just reflect population growth in these cities? We sometimes forget the population is doubling every 20 years now.
Prof. FOX: No, it doesn't. A one-year change in population is a very - is a small drop in the bucket. What we saw in many cities are double-digit increases in the number of violent crimes. So, yes, population matters, but all the crime rates are adjusted for population.
CONAN: Let's talk with Bob. Bob's calling us from Glen Arbor in Michigan.
BOB (CALLER): Yeah. Good afternoon.
BOB: Is there any coincidence in the fact that the cities that are experiencing this crime rate increase are also the areas that allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons as a deterrent against crime?
Prof. FOX: Many of the cities that have experience increases are in areas of the country that are very gun friendly? So, I don't think you can do that correlation. Actually, some of the cities that are seeing the biggest increases now are the ones that saw some of the biggest decreases before.
They got a little bit too complacent. Thinking, oh our problems are over, gangs have gone away, we've solved the problem of crime. Well they didn't solve it, they controlled it. And as they got a little complacent, they think well, we don't need to try so hard anymore and they moved resources elsewhere.
Well, crime came back with a, you know, with a vengeance. And we have a larger number of kids in our population now who are attracted to gangs. They see gangs as exciting, cool, status conferring. And so, when we let down our guard, the gangs made a comeback.
CONAN: Bob, I'm sorry?
BOB: But that's gang violence as opposed to citizenry violence, isn't it?
Prof. FOX: Well, the cities that we mentioned - a significant share of their increase in violence is gang related violence and youth related violence.
CONAN: I don't think there's a concealed carry law in cities like Boston or Philadelphia, and certainly not in Washington D.C.
Prof. FOX: But there are others - those weren't the only cities to see an increase. I think yes, there are lots of people who believe that a concealed weapon law sends a message to offenders: watch out, you attack me, I'm going to get you first. But there's just not a lot of evidence that that's a significant deterrent.
You know, we're talking about, in many of these cases, are offenders who really don't think about the future. They're - I mean, we're talking about kids who live for today and die for today, and things as seemingly trivial as a leather jacket or a pair of sneakers is a matter of life or death.
If you don't really have much hope for the future, and if you don't really think about what things are going to be like for you at the age of 25 or 30 and you're just living for today - then you have kids who are carrying guns and really don't care about concealed weapons laws, even if they knew about them. A lot of them don't know the laws, anyway.
CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the phone call.
BOB: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's talk now with Bob Donovan who's with us from Milwaukee where he's an alderman and chair of the Public Safety Committee. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. BOB DONOVAN (Alderman, Public Safety Committee; Milwaukee): Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: And Bob, tell us a little bit about what's been happening there in Milwaukee.
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, I don't think it's any different than certainly what some of the other cities have been experiencing. We have seen an increase in violence in the city. We had a big increase in the murder rate last year. And those numbers have, for many years, stayed stubbornly high. And, you know, that makes a real challenge for the city and the perception that people have of the city. So, you know, I think those are some of the things that we're certainly dealing with here as well.
CONAN: And how is the city responding?
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, I personally am an advocate of a more aggressive law and order type of approach. I've advocated for filling the 250 police vacancies that we currently have. And I think, over the years, we have maintained a high level of vacancies primarily due to budget constraints. And I think we've dug ourselves into the hole.
And, you know, I further advocate for a more broken windows-type of policing, of foot patrol, bicycle officers, problems solving, out in the neighborhoods, that I think can make an impact in order maintenance. And that's certainly what I'm looking to try and restore in the city of Milwaukee. And I know others as well, certainly.
CONAN: We're talking…
Prof. FOX: You know Neal…
CONAN: Excuse me just a moment. We're talking about an increase in crime statistics in some cities across the country. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Mr. Fox, go ahead.
Prof. FOX: Yeah, very quickly. The difficulty with the fact that so many cities have seen these declining numbers of police officers is, once we wake up and decide that we're going to restore those resources, you can't do it overnight. Because you've got to recruit them, you've got to train them, and you've got to give them some experience.
So, it's actually a several year lag time between the point when we wake up and say we need to expand police resources once again and the point that we really get to where we were 10 years ago.
CONAN: And as you suggested, Alderman Donovan, this isn't cheap.
Mr. DONOVAN: Oh, absolutely not. But, you know, many of my colleagues, other people in the community, will argue we can't afford it. Well, I would argue we can't afford not to do it. And the comment is absolutely right. An officer, to be an effective officer, takes at least five to eight years on the job. To really know what he or she is doing and be an effective police officer, that doesn't happen overnight, without a doubt.
CONAN: Go ahead.
Prof. FOX: And a few hundred X dollars in the taxpayer's pocket, which I know they enjoy, is not a lot of consolation if you're staring down the wrong end of a gun. These programs take money and the choice is really ours. Either pay for the programs now or pray for the victims later.
CONAN: And what do you see as the problem in Milwaukee? Why are these - the level of crimes been stubbornly high?
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, I think there may be a number of reasons. You know, you look back at our community and how it's changed over the years. We've seen an increase in unemployment. We were once a great manufacturing city. That, you know, that has changed. I think many of the problems that we're experiencing in our community is related to youth.
I see a change in people's patience, if you will, for no other reason. It's not uncommon to run into individuals and have situations where people - we had an incident not long ago where two ladies were arguing over a dress and one pulled out a gun and killed the other. You know, I mean, it's ridiculous things like that that maybe years back you didn't see.
CONAN: I wonder about that, James Alan Fox. We do hear anecdotal evidence of just what the alderman is talking about, where incidents that might have involved an argument turn into fistfights or what used to be a fistfight turns into a knife fight, and on up the scale.
Prof. FOX: Sure, over the past 30 years the character of crime and homicide and violence has changed a lot. The conventional wisdom once was that most violent crimes and homicide occurs within the family. And over the years have been many, many more cases of stranger homicides, acquaintance murders, neighbor upon neighbor. People who get into a conflict and take it outside and they have plenty of weaponry to finish off their victim. That's a sad trend in our society. Absolutely.
CONAN: And I wonder, the police chief here in Washington D.C. said that he's seeing a new pattern of - traditionally, in the past, people have committed most crimes within a mile of where they live - people moving further and further away from their homes to commit crimes. Is that something that you're seeing in Milwaukee?
Mr. DONOVAN: Oh, I have no doubt. We live in a very mobile society. We're seeing things on occasion, occur in our suburbs that may not have been the case years ago. And individuals traveling from one neighborhood to another. We've seen that even go on with gangs, traveling from one side of the town to another and conducting business, and so on. And, you know, that creates conflicts then as well. So, you know, undoubtedly a number of challenges.
Prof. FOX: Let me just add that the money's there. It's - the issue is our priorities. How many of these cities have recently spent millions of dollars to build sports facilities when one could make the case that the owner's of these franchises should be putting up the dough themselves? Like actually Bob Kraft did here in Boston. There are cities that are building multi-million dollar stadiums who have school systems that are failing, whose kids are being ignored. Let's get our priorities right, please.
CONAN: Clearly, they hope that the tax revenues generated by that activity might contribute down the line. But that's another argument for another program. Alderman Donovan, thanks very much.
Mr. DONOVAN: Oh, you bet. Thank you.
CONAN: Bob Donovan is an alderman in Milwaukee and chair of the Public Safety Committee. More of your calls on crime and what's happening where you live when we come from a short break. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. The continued fighting in Lebanon was the subject of a meeting of foreign ministers in Rome today. They called for an urgent and sustainable ceasefire. As well as the deployment of an international force under a U.N. mandate. No indication of when either of those things might take place.
And Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted today that his country is a frontline in the war on terrorism, and said those behind the rampant violence there are preventing - excuse me - perverting the Islamic faith. Al-Maliki's comments came during a speech before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.
Details on those stories, and of course, much more later today on ALL THING CONSIDERED. Tomorrow at this time on TALK OF THE NATION, public versus private schools, which one gives you the better education. A new study may surprise you.
Plus the return of our summer movie series. Every other Thursday we pick a movie genre, you send us your candidates for the movies that best illustrate that genre. And Murray Horwitz of the American Film Institute joins us to go over the results. Tomorrow we kick it off. Send us your picks for best bosses from hell in cinema. Don't forget to tell us why you think so. Email is
In a few minutes, a new history of diplomacy from Ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe, but let's continue our conversation on measuring and fighting violent crime. Our guest is James Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, fellow at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and a columnist for the Boston Herald.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Molly. Molly's calling us from St. Louis.
MOLLY (CALLER): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
MOLLY: My question is that you focused a lot on violence in the larger cities and I wondered - I heard recently that gang violence is becoming a bigger and bigger problem in middle sized cities and even smaller sized cities, where there's not so much for kids to do. And I wondered what do you think is causing that?
CONAN: Do the statistics bear that out, James Fox?
Prof. FOX: Actually yes, and in St. Louis actually the situation has grown quite worrisome. If I recall, you had about a 15 percent increase in homicide a year ago, but an 80 percent increase the year before that. I think things in St. Louis are way up if I recall.
But what's happened in many of the smaller cities, particularly in Middle America, is they have become fertile ground for a lot of the gangs who have been, sort of pushed out of the coasts - away from the coasts - by heavy anti-gang initiatives, looking for new places to land, new turf to rule and new businesses to run. And they've found in many of these small cities that have police departments that aren't really geared up to dealing with gangs or don't have the resources to deal with gangs, that they can move right in, take over businesses, make lots of money, and take over some turf.
So, the caller's quite right that part of the problem in Middle America is the gangs have seen - gangs are as mobile as people are. You know, if things aren't going well for you in your neighborhood lots of people pick up and move to another community hoping for another start. Well, that's what happens with gangs as well.
CONAN: Hmm. Molly, thanks very much. Let's talk now with - this is Howard. Howard's calling us from New Orleans.
HOWARD (CALLER): Yes. I live in the New Orleans area and recently I sold my house, about four months ago. And you're talking about when crime gets into a white community and people get excited. Well, I was in a diverse area, and it seems like crime in a black community - you have the mother, father or an aunt saying he was a good boy, he was a good boy. It seems like nobody does anything bad. Well let me tell you. I sold my house in New Orleans because of fear of crime and thugs. And I moved to a place called Gretna. And let me tell you, you've probably heard about Gretna, Louisiana, on the news; and I'm finding places that do have problems with political correctness are usually areas that have less problems with thugs.
And we have a parish across from Lake Pontchartrain from us, St. Tammany. Jack Strain got called down for political correctness. And Jefferson Parish next to us had Sheriff Harry Lee. They both were called down by political correctness.
Well, I'm going to say one thing, they don't have the thugs in those areas. And I'm going to protect my family. In fact, the house I sold three months ago, a thug hijacked a car right in front of the house I used to own. So I think this deal about political correctness, I'm willing to sacrifice some political correctness for safety in the streets.
Prof. FOX: Well, I really can't speak about the situation there, because I don't know too much about it, but let me just say something about the difference in white communities and black communities and rich and poor.
One of the problems I see right now is there's been so much shift in resources away from hometown security to homeland security, because those people who are most effected by terrorism are wealthy and powerful. Those people most effected by ordinary street crime are poor and powerless.
I mean, look at the numbers. Many more people are killed every year in ordinary street crimes in poor neighborhoods than were killed on 9/11. And I don't want to, you know, weigh one death against another, but it's quite telling that we can get all excited about and concerned about terrorism, but we don't have the same kind of excitement and concern for ordinary street crime, and we should.
HOWARD: Well, I'm excited because it got into my neighborhood. And the fact that I'm excited because it wasn't safe for me to go out in the streets. I sold my house.
CONAN: Yes, obviously the police department in New Orleans also, I think, suffered disproportionately, for any number of reasons, after Hurricane Katrina.
HOWARD: But I'm going to tell you that thugs sitting on the corner with nothing to do, kids with nothing to do. In New Orleans, there's a heck of a lot of work, obviously, after Katrina. There's neighborhoods where these kids are still sitting around and they could be working, and they're not working.
CONAN: Howard, thanks very much.
Prof. FOX: Idleness is a problem in many, many communities. And let me just say something about the future. You know, this increase we just had in homicide and violence should be a wake-up call. Looking ahead, and I don't want to be an alarmist here, but we do have reason for concern. We have - the population of at-risk youth is continuing to rise, particularly black and Latino kids who are poorly supervised, who go to schools that just don't do the job, who live in violence-torn neighborhoods.
Combined with that is we've had these tremendous cuts in federal and local spending for cops and for programs. Unless we turn the clock back with our priorities and start reinvesting in kids and cops, the situation could get much worse.
CONAN: And to some degree, do those cutbacks reflect also some complacency? Well, we've seen the numbers come down all these years.
Prof. FOX: Absolutely. We are complacent; we shift our priorities very quickly when we're not - when crime rates went down seven straight years, Americans started thinking crime isn't a problem any more. Let's worry about really important things like who Jennifer Aniston is going to marry.
CONAN: James Alan Fox, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Prof. FOX: My pleasure.
CONAN: James Fox is a fellow at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, and a columnist for The Boston Herald. He joins us today from studios at the Christian Science Monitor's offices in Boston, Massachusetts. When we come back, The Ambassadors.
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