By Michael Kleen
It is time for an honest conversation about crime in Rockford, a conversation that focuses on solutions rather than excuses.
For far too long, politicians and public officials have gotten away with blaming everything under the sun but themselves for their impotence in the face of the city’s problems. For years, they have offered the same solution: raise taxes and pour money into public schools and development projects, with little effect. We need leadership with the courage to change the conversation and get results.
Unfortunately, dissemblance has become a way of life for our public officials. In an interview last week, for example, Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson masterfully side-stepped criticism over Rockford’s embarrassing crime rate. “There is too much crime,” he said. “When we look at crime reduction, crime is the end result. We have to look at poverty, the economy and education. Those are the core components. If we have a crime problem, that is the end. What has happened before that? We are making progress, but there is just too much crime.”
This is an incredible statement because, essentially, Chief Epperson is saying there is little the police department can do about crime in Rockford. The police department, after all, can do nothing about poverty, education or the economy. So, until “we” fix those things, there is only so much the police can do to keep crime in the city under control.
When the crime rate went down last year, however, Epperson was quick to take the credit. Now, when it is on its way back up, it is because of factors outside of his control.
The old scapegoats of poverty, poor education and the economy may be convenient, but they only go so far. Bernie Madoff and Kenneth Lay were wealthy and well-educated, but that did not stop them from committing their crimes. When a man from a working class or impoverished neighborhood steals a car, it is poverty’s fault. When Bernie Madoff steals more than $18 billion, whose fault is it?
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Rockfordians are law-abiding citizens, even those who live in impoverished neighborhoods or who attended substandard schools. A person is not a ticking time bomb just because he or she grew up in a poor neighborhood. The idea that poverty and poor education are wholly to blame for criminal behavior is insulting to all those residents who simply want to walk down their street in safety. It is the job of the police department to deal with the small percent who make life miserable for everyone else.
There are always going to be some people who commit crimes because they are sociopaths and do not care about the consequences of their actions, but the majority of crimes are crimes of passion and opportunity. The more crimes people get away with, the more they will commit.
This destructive cycle is nurtured by a culture of tolerance for delinquency, a culture that is either reinforced or discouraged by signals sent from people in positions of authority. Inaction, hesitancy and refusal to accept responsibility are like green lights to those who already have little respect for the law.
Simple things like clearing trash, fixing streetlights, enforcing building codes, repairing streets, washing away graffiti and discouraging loiterers can have a dramatic effect on reducing crime in a neighborhood.
A university study called “The Spreading of Disorder,” published in the journal Science in 2008, found that when people observe others violate a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread. Any veteran teacher skilled in keeping order in a classroom, of course, could have made that observation.
If the finger of blame for Rockford’s high crime rate must be pointed anywhere, it should be pointed at the criminals themselves as well as the policymakers who have virtually abandoned certain areas of the city. Safe streets and safe neighborhoods start with citizens who take an active role in their community, but law-abiding citizens need support and encouragement from their community leaders. They have the power to put weight behind their words.
The fact is, there are cities that had far worse crime rates than Rockford that were able to turn things around in just a few years. It will not be easy, but electing leadership that finally has the courage to confront the problem openly and honestly would be a good start.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian, and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and master’s degree in education. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the July 25-31, 2012, issue