Thursday, August 18, 2011

How to respond to urban violence?

Ben and I talk about the Philadelphia "flash mobs" and the London riots in this week's Scripps Howard column. I argue that recession-era austerity isn't just cutting the safety net—it's also undermining our ability to police our cities:
Urban violence is nothing new but American city-dwellers are used to the problem being mostly contained to poor, largely minority areas of our cities. The recent incidents in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City are notable for one commonality: they took place in those cities' glitzier shopping districts, "good neighborhoods" usually untouched by strife.

Cynicism is easy; violence only matters when it happens to the white and well off. But the perception of increased violence, fair or not, can create a negative feedback loop that has real effects on a city and its prospects. Think of New York in the 1970s; it took decades for the city to make a comeback.

So while we need to plug away at underlying social ills -- and there are many -- we should also take quicker and more direct action. We must flood the streets with cops.

The idea has an honorable liberal pedigree. It was President Bill Clinton, after all, who pushed to put 100,000 new police officers on American streets back in the 1990s. And smart police forces have adopted "community policing" methods -- where officers walk a beat, like in the old days, getting to know neighborhood residents -- that have proven effective in preventing crime, but require manpower.

Here's where government austerity compounds the problem: The police forces in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City have been stretched in recent years by recession-era budgeting. The problem will get worse: Federal grants to local police forces across the country are being slashed in the name of deficit cuts. Police forces are being asked to do more with less. Like everybody else, they can't.

The drive to slash domestic spending isn't just affecting social programs and the safety net. It's cutting into protective services that could help put a lid on violence and unrest. Be sure to give thanks to the Republican Party.

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