* written by Jeffrey Klineman in the April 15, 2004 edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy
When he went to the nation’s capital, John A. Calhoun thought he would spend two or three years there, just long enough to do some work for President Jimmy Carter. He ended up spending nearly three decades in Washington.
Now Mr. Calhoun, 64, is getting ready to leave his job as head of the National Crime Prevention Council, but he hopes to find a new way to work in his area of expertise, which is helping troubled children and families. For more than 20 years, he’s been using those skills in an unexpected way, as head of the organization best known for spawning McGruff, the Bogart-esque talking dog who encourages Americans to “take a bite out of crime.”
While McGruff was the result of a group of advertisers intent on creating a symbol for crime prevention, the group’s animated public face belies its years of struggle to spread nontraditional approaches to preventing crime. Under Mr. Calhoun’s leadership, the group has grown from a coalition of 19 federal agencies and national organizations like the PTA and International Association of Chiefs of Police to include more than 4,000 state, city, and local organizations that have a stake in preventing crime.
He joined the council, he says, because he was interested in finding a way to blend families, children, and neighborhood development with crime prevention. “It’s hard to get people together, but frequently they’ll come together over the crime issue, if nothing else.”
In the past two decades, Mr. Calhoun has emerged as one of the leading voices in shifting attention away from the idea that individuals should do all they can to protect themselves from crime, and toward efforts by community groups to create neighborhoods that don’t allow illegal activity to fester.
Mr. Calhoun came to the crime-prevention group, where he currently makes $164,900, after working in the Carter administration as the Commissioner of the U.S. Administration for Children, Youth and Families, which was followed by a two-year stretch as vice president of the Child Welfare League of America.
In its early years, the crime-prevention group was little more than its ad campaigns. The first McGruff ads met with great acclaim and prompted numerous inquiries for published information about putting together crime-prevention programs.
But it wasn’t until a group of families from a tough neighborhood in Chicago staged a sit-in at the U.S. Department of Justice, in Washington, that Mr. Calhoun was finally able to put together a project that solidified many of his ideas about crime prevention.
Called in to negotiate with the families, Mr. Calhoun won a grant from the Department of Justice to look at “how you stop crime and build community in places where people are too poor to move out,” he says. “The heart of it was fourfold: You will define community not just psychologically, but geographically; you will have all the key entities around the table, including the school principal, the community leaders, the police; you’ll have a short-term goal, a success to get under a belt, like closing a crack house or cleaning up a park; and you’ll say, ‘What’s the long-term dream?’ It really took off. Crime dropped in those areas. We didn’t usher nirvana into the whole city, but things changed in these little oases.”
Mr. Calhoun reflected on his career in an interview:
What has changed in crime prevention in the past 20 years?
One is that it’s not just preventing crime, but it’s doing the positive work to create situations in which crime doesn’t flourish. The other is that police are trying to be more proactive than reactive. A lot of them are into problem-oriented policing. Not just incident-oriented, but something broader, with commitments by most police departments to have an officer or a squad assigned to crime prevention.
How can you tell that people have adopted community approaches to preventing crime?
That we talk about crime in terms of quality of life and it isn’t considered a crazy notion, not even by the police. You get many [police] chiefs talking about quality of life as the key to eradicating crime. Mayors and city managers see the whole crime issue as central to healthy communities. You’re getting different spokespersons for prevention — the faith community, the builders. But when you get Ruben Ortega, the former chief in Salt Lake City, sitting in front of a budget hearing and saying, “Don’t give me more money, what you really need are counselors in schools to decrease the dropout rate,” I knew we were doing something right. This was a cop, turning down money because he knew crime could be prevented through some other program. It’s amazing.
While you have pushed community programs, haven’t imprisonment rates risen?
I have fought it, not always successfully. Clearly, the most violent have to be off the streets and we’ve also got to get off the streets those that are tearing communities apart. But I’m appalled at long sentences for drug users who could be treated and rehabilitated. The public has a right to be protected, but that protection is not antithetical to community.
Why was it important to focus on ideas like quality of life?
Practically speaking, you can do as much as you want as an individual, but at some point you run into your limits. One young woman I met recently set up a project to help a poor person rebuild her house. I’ll never forget talking to this tough 15-year-old girl, so proud of what she’d built. And she said, well, we built this house, but who is going to build all the other houses that the poor need?
I also think of a program in Winston-Salem [N.C.] that is known as notification, which means that when a criminal returns to the community, people are notified and he or she meets with leaders and other people. I was there when this older woman says [to someone leaving jail], I can’t shop, there are gunshots here, I don’t feel safe. She says to this guy, “If you cross the line and offend again, I’m going to report you. But I’m also doing everything I can to support you.”
Have you ever worn the McGruff costume?
Only once, although my daughter says sometimes I dress like him, and that we have the same barber.