Crime prevention is among the most exciting tools of the new millennium for building and sustaining communities in which people can safely live, work, learn, and play. It motivates, bonds, and mobilizes people around a shared goal. It also builds community.
Crime prevention includes the basics of personal safety- locks, lights, alarms, and the like. But at its heart, it is comprehensive, collaborative community action to address causes as well as symptoms-to stop crime before it starts, not merely to displace it or to deal with the aftermath. It works on three levels-individual (self, home, and family), neighborhood, and community. No matter how safe the individual at home, he or she needs a safe neighborhood in which to live. No matter how safe the neighborhood, it will not remain safe unless it is supported by a healthy, caring community.
How Does Crime Prevention Build Community?
In San Antonio, Texas, Wray Hood and her neighbors fought back against drugs, violence, and debris and wound up with twenty-two new homes. The group struggled to get a property owner to clean up and repair rental housing that was an eyesore and a magnet for drug dealers, vandals, and other criminals. The owner refused. The neighbors organized and made their case to the news media and the city council, which finally issued the necessary foreclosure orders. Result? Twenty-two new, moderately-priced homes, owner occupied and thriving, and a neighborhood not just freed from a longstanding menace but proud of its work together and committed to strengthening its bonds.
Or consider Del Pickney, a police officer in Tustin, California. Taking the idea of community policing to heart, he decided on his own-in addition to his regular patrol and training duties to adopt an apartment complex and help transform it from an anonymous group of renters into a caring, concerned neighborhood. Pickney made himself a colleague in this effort, working side-by-side with the residents and property manager to help people get to know each other, to build trust in police officers, to solve problems, to educate and involve youth, and create common ground and common purpose. Crime dropped, neighbors began looking out for each other and for neighborhood children, and needs-from swimming lessons to literacy classes-were met, thanks to a police officer who knew and acted on the fact that a healthy, vibrant community is among the best antidotes to crime.
In Tampa, Florida, the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa (CDCT), headed by Chloe Coney, has taken on the challenge of building strong, healthy communities in East Tampa, the city’s most crime-ridden area. CDCT’s community development mission is fueled by measures to reduce and prevent crime. The corporation combines anti-drug activities, mentoring, parent training, youth employment and entrepreneurship, neighborhood alliances, academic support services for youth, and economic development to fight crime, build community, and create vision and commitment for the area’s residents. CDCT sees its commitment to help residents build a safe and secure environment, in which young people and adults can thrive, as the smartest community development strategy for East Tampa’s neighborhoods. Crime prevention and community building share many goals:
- Safer environments for individuals, families, and neighborhoods.
- A sense of collective ownership of and comfort in public spaces.
- The need to address multiple causes that generate multiple symptoms and effects.
- A desire to generate and strengthen community bonds, shared interests, and civic interaction.
- Creation of collaborative, comprehensive, strategic structures that help communities identify potential problems and prevent them or generate solutions to them.
Crime Prevention Can Help Reverse Three Trends
Crime prevention strategies can help reverse three disturbing Crime emptying the public purse. The sound of ripping leather captures the second trend-wallets being torn open to pay the costs of crime. Crime costs more than $450 billion a year-a “crime tax” of more than $1.2 billion per day. That doesn’t count the costs to the community in terms of disruption and diminished growth.
The direct costs of crime are overwhelming our states, making it harder and harder for them to help strengthen communities. Connecticut spent $500 million on corrections but only $400 million on higher education in 1998. Since 1985, California has built twenty-two prisons and one higher education campus. Communities cannot meet the needs of neighborhoods and families if they are paying the costs of crime. Again, prevention is the answer-it costs less on all fronts.
Crime weakens communities; weak communities invite crime. Too many of our communities and neighborhoods face unacceptable levels of malfunction, even civic collapse: fearful children and adults, local businesses that cannot afford to stay in business, public spaces bereft of human interaction. Crime weakens communities, and weak communities are less resistant to crime.
The link between crime and community health works the other way, as well. Healthy, cohesive communities have less crime. Robert Sampson and other researchers in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods compared neighborhoods in terms of social, economic, and demographic traits as well as crime rates. Communities with high rates of “collective efficacy,” whatever their social and economic makeup, experienced lower crime rates. It verifies what many have long known: A community in which neighbors care and are actively involved is a safer neighborhood.
Community building can reduce crime and crime prevention can build communities. This partnership is a preventive strategy that must be applied more thoughtfully and thoroughly.
Crime Prevention Gets Support from Four Trends
There is growing recognition that things cannot go on as they are; evidence is increasingly clear that many prevention strategies do work; people in a variety of disciplines are recognizing the role of prevention as a broad community strategy; and there are new measures of success in working with neighborhoods and communities.
It’s Time for a Change
Senior police officials have turned to community policing and crime prevention strategies because they recognize that, as then-Chief Ruben Ortega of Salt Lake City, Utah, put it, “We cannot jail our way out of the crime problem.” Liz Glazer, Assistant U.S. Attorney for Crime Control Strategies in New York
City, is willing and able to prosecute people and send the guilty to jail, but “I intend to help citizens build a community that is resistant to crime so that I don’t have to keep returning as a prosecutor.”
What they had in common was that their residents interwove enforcement, prevention, and intervention policies comprehensively and strategically, and backed their planning with action and accountability. Every key sector of the community was at the table, from schools to parole offices, from the faith community to the research community. Each made specific, measurable commitments. This approach works, and communities need more opportunities to employ it.
Prevention Is More Widely Accepted
There are increasing numbers of prevention advocates throughout the community. Researchers, child advocates, corrections officials, local prosecutors, local elected officials, public health officials, governors, legislators, and law enforcement officers have begun to discover (or rediscover) the validity of prevention.
Prevention has won adherents in major policing organizations, in academic circles, and among local and state groups that have tried it. The result is a powerful, if subtle, move toward addressing prevention as part of the picture, rather than an untested pipe dream.
Measures of Success Are Changing
The gauges of prevention’s impact have shifted. Crime reports are now only one of several measures used. Increasingly, measures include such results of prevention as increased housing values in a Weed and Seed community; residents’ ability to take late-night public transit without fear; increased use of
parks by all ages at all times of the day and evening; crack houses bulldozed and replaced with brand-new, affordable housing; pizza delivery restored to a once embattled neighborhood. Community crime prevention looks through a lens that asks how people live, not how crime reports vacillate.
What Does It Take?
Those working to build community-to engage civic energies, to create and sustain healthy institutions, and to support families and neighborhoods-need to recognize that crime and fear of crime are important issues in the day-to-day lives of the people they seek to help. Preventing crime-addressing causes and building assets-must be part of the strategy of creating and sustaining community strength.
Look at one example of how community activists can work together on a crime-related problem by using the individual neighborhood-community framework.
The National Crime Prevention Council’s Are We Safe? survey for 2000 found that three in ten families leave children home alone at least sometime during the work week, and one in four families leave children home alone on weekends-leaving as many as twenty million children with no adult supervision for thirty minutes or more during the week and 17.6 million on weekends. Children at home alone are at greater risk of accident, drug experimentation, victimization, and other dangers. A wide range of civic actors ought to be concerned about this-fire safety officials, police, child protection works, youth workers, health workers, emergency departments, drug prevention specialists, to name just a few.
The individual-neighborhood-community framing helps define the work that needs doing. Parents and children need to know about how children should handle these situations, establish “house rules,” and communicate concerns. Community resources can help parents learn the best ways to do this, Parents need to link with neighbors who can be on call tor each other and their children in case of emergencies, which means that neighbors need to get to know and trust each other. The community may need to establish some kind of alternative for parents-perhaps a drop-in center for kids on weekends. The result-a wider and better-functioning net of caring that prevents problems instead of paying for their aftermath.
This is just one example of how crime prevention strategies can create links that strengthen the fabric of civic life, increase our sense of caring as a community, and shift our collective thinking toward preventive approaches.
Youth Are a Critical Part of the Answer
Youth are disproportionately both victims of crime and victimizers. They are also assets waiting to be tapped in community building and in crime prevention. Young people can and have mediated disputes, counseled peers, taught younger children, worked with older residents, eliminated graffiti, helped clean up neighborhoods, built playgrounds and other community facilities, and developed drug prevention and anti-smoking programs.
The very act of tapping these assets can help prevent victimization and delinquency. And nine out of ten teens want to volunteer in activities that prevent crime, according to a 1997 Harris Poll.
Beyond enlisting youth in crime prevention, adults need to realize that simply spending time with young people-knowing them by name, talking with them as individuals, listening to them with care and concern-is a powerful anti-crime strategy and community-building technique. Research documents clearly that young people who have positive relationships with at least one caring adult are far less likely to become delinquent, drug-involved, drop-outs, or engaged in other adverse behaviors.
The power of naming-of claiming-has long been known. The Old Testament highlights it in Isaiah: Oh Israel fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name; thou art Mine. For a more secular reference, consider A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Piglet comes up to Pooh and says, Hey Pooh!
Pooh responds, Yes, Piglet, what do you want? Nothing, says Piglet, I just wanted to make sure you were there.
How much more powerful it is to also invite these young people to help address community problems, especially crime- related ones that directly affect them.
Building a Community by Preventing Crime
Jamesetta Harris bought a home in the Englewood community of Chicago in 1992, unaware that the area was under the rule of gun-fighting gangs. She refused to accept the incessant gunfire and crime as inevitable. She organized neighbors to come outside and started a newsletter for the entire block so that people would hear about the good news for a change. The block club she started became an early partner in Chicago’s community-policing effort, which helped get the gangs out of the area and addressed other crime issues.
Mrs. Harris took up problems beyond gunfire, too. A half- block of sidewalk, missing for fifteen years, was replaced. New stop signs improved vehicle and pedestrian safety. A vacant lot, long used as a car dump, became a community garden. Old trees were trimmed and new ones were planted. A yearly block party, a Thanksgiving-weekend farmers’ market, and bus service to the mayor’s yearly jamboree brought neighbors out of their homes so did the community garden and a chance to simply enjoy green grass where there had been none for years. Mrs. Harris also helped organize seven other block clubs in the Englewood neighborhood and was responsible for getting the city to board up or tear down thirty derelict buildings in the neighborhood.
A Powerful Motivator
Crime prevention can be-as it was for Jamesetta Harris, Wray Hood, Del Pickney, and Chloe Coney-a powerful motivator for many people who might otherwise not become actively involved in their communities. It offers another way to enlist citizens in civic life, which is what community building is all about.
One woman in a crime-besieged neighborhood summed up the crime prevention-community building connection concisely: “After we get rid of the drugs and crime, what kind of neighborhood do we want?” That indeed is the question.
John A. Calhoun is the founding President and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a 20 year old Washington, DC based non-profit whose mission is to build safe and caring communities. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the Administration on children, youth and families, and before that he was Commissioner of Youth Services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
* First published in the Spring/Summer 2001 edition of Community: A Journal of Community Building for Community Leaders, a publication of the United Way of America.