Cameras, Churches and Crime

New Orleans     Recently, two kids managed to grab-and-run with a couple of hundred bucks at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse as one created a distraction and other jumped the counter.  The neighboring grocery store cameras had great pictures of them scouting their location.  We spent a lot of time trying to give the footage to the police.  Did it stop the crimes?  Did it catch anyone?  Will the police do anything about any of this?  We all know the answers to these questions.  This is small potatoes; the cops are going to prioritize the big stuff.  We had a Google Nest in our coffeehouse.  Turned out it had never been turned on or had somehow been inactivated, which says a lot as well.

Are cameras a crutch or a real crime prevention tool?  Sometimes it’s hard to tell.  In the United Kingdom they are everywhere.  CCTV or close-circuit television is huge in China as well.  Coupled with developments in facial recognition software, privacy and civil rights advocates have warned of misuse.  A recent special section on data collection and surveillance in The Economist ran a cartoon that spoke of the weeks it would take for police to analyze camera footage and how easy it would be to misidentify people, confusing the innocent for the guilty and vice-versa.

I thought of all of this when reading about a project in New Orleans called the Partnership for Peace and Safety being launched by the Isaiah Institute to couple faith groups with local business people to put cameras in lower income neighborhoods in various parts of the city.  The project is spearheaded by a longtime local community organizer and activist, Joe Givens, and takes as its model a similar program he ran more than twenty years ago when working for ACT, All Congregations Together, in its heyday.  They have set a target of outfitting 325 cameras on local churches and then another 214 will be directed towards the streets from various congregants’ own homes.  Although the installation of the cameras only costs $150 and a monthly $15 to run the signal, the project, if fully realized, seems to have a one-million price tag, which is surprising.  Project NOLA, which has installed 2500 cameras around New Orleans since 2010 is supplying the initial cameras and monitoring, so the money used to “fund the church programming” must be significant.  Givens describes the program in one of the local papers as an “aggressive neighborhood watch” with “newer technology.”

Will it work?  Hard to tell.  Project NOLA claims their work has “helped in the investigation” of what would be an average of 333 felonies and 22 homicides annually over the last nine years, so that’s not nothing.  Just picking a random year (2015) in the middle, New Orleans has almost 19,000 reported felonies and 165 or so homicides every year, so, like any big American city, this is a mountain to climb.

Is this just a feel-good program for churches and their local business folks or something that will either retard crime or catch criminals?  That’s an open question still.  Nonetheless, this is something worth watching, and I mean that literally.

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Please enjoy Prince’s Mary Don’t You Weep.

Fall Back on the Blade by Static and Surrender.

Thanks to KABF.

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Community Organizations Stabilize Urban Neighborhoods & Reduce Crime

New Orleans     We told you so, and we’ve been telling the same story for more than 50 years:  community organizations stabilize and improve neighborhoods.  It seems almost ridiculous to have to state the claim.  Seems like this should be common knowledge by now, but here it is, we’re saying it this time because in the contemporary world of big data and exhaustive social science investigation, we’ve now got studies that prove the basic claims that community organizers have making for years.

I had seen a glancing mention of this study in some paper, so I tracked down and read the book this week.  I’m talking about Patrick Sharkey’s book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.  Sharkey is the chair of New York University’s sociology department and scientist at Crime Lab New York, so he’s no drive by commentator throwing his opinions in the wind, nor is he a community organizer like myself with a herd of horses in this race.  He’s in favor of crime going down and urban neighborhoods stabilizing and rebuilding, so he’s neither neutral nor objective, but his voice needs to be heard and heeded.

He and several of his students did some careful research that attempted to track falling crime rates in neighborhoods with rising rates of community organization activity in the period between 1990 and 2012, coincidentally a period in which much of ACORN’s growth and expansion was most profound.  Their study did not look only at New York City, but spread its work throughout the country citing examples from Texas to Los Angeles to Chicago and many places in between.

Sharkey and his team found that community organizations were a huge factor, perhaps a determining one, in the decrease of crime in many areas that triggered stabilization and often renewal.  As he writes, community groups represent “…new guardians looking out over city streets [and] are not just public and private security guards but also residents, mobilized in new organizations specifically formed to build community life and control violence. And their presence is a crucial part of the story about how urban communities have changed over the past twenty years.”  He doesn’t argue that we did it alone, but he doesn’t back away from the conclusion of his data on the rise of such nonprofit activity, saying, “…the hard work of community groups, combined with the enhanced presence of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and private security forces that helped bring about the drop in violence across urban America. The most fundamental change that took place in U.S. cities was the transformation of public spaces. Streets that had been abandoned for decades were taken over by police officers, security guards, and community groups.”

I include these passages because they should become part of funding proposals for private and public support of community organizing all over the world.  Sharkey recognizes the fact that our organizational voices have been crying in the urban wilderness as well and shriveling for lack of support. He acknowledges that the “…wave of community mobilization that spread across U.S. cities in the early 1990s, after decades in which community organizations struggled for public support.”

We’ve been making the case.  Sharkey and his team have provided yet more evidence.  Support for community organizing should be part of the first line of defense and advance, not simply more heroic stories of individual heroes trying to save their homes and that of therir neighbors, ignored by City Hall and everyone else.

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