Some Thoughts On Urban Problems

The following first appeared in a Facebook post I wrote last month. Unlike my blog posts which are about laws and legal practice, this is just a collection of thoughts. Since it is relevant to criminal justice, I decided to share it with my readers and hope that we can have some discourse in the comments section.

This post isn’t directed at anyone in particular but to a sentiment I’ve been seeing on social media and political media (recently Rudy Giuliani): that black people and white liberals don’t care about “black on black” violence and should focus on that rather than police violence. Aside from skirting the issue–which is that there are different experiences in police encounters among white and black people–it is false and based in (possibly willful) ignorance. Urban communities are absolutely dedicated to discussing and addressing the violence that affects them, which often is committed by black and Hispanic people. In the cities where I’ve lived and worked, especially but not only New Haven, that was the case with local politicians, neighborhood groups and citizens. Suburbanites aren’t the only people that don’t want their houses burglarized or their friends and family killed. Although I admittedly haven’t attended one, from what I understand this is a regular topic at black churches. That a lot of people don’t notice this is in itself a reason for the existence of Black Lives Matter.

I think this is based not in racial lines but geographic and socio-economic divides. People who don’t live in cities put urban problems out of sight and out of mind while it was their–or their parents’/grandparents’ flight–from the cities that led to many of the urban problems they still face.

I’ve also long thought that a lot of the attitudes toward police were less white/black and more suburban/urban–clearly there are racial reasons but I don’t think they’re the only reasons. Experiences with police change with the territory. Residents of wealthier, suburban communities view the police as public servants whom they pay with their taxes to protect their families and homes. They trust cops because they see them doing more community things such as taking their police dogs to school and holding toy drives (which city police do too) than making arrests and drawing their weapons. City people see cops writing tickets, questioning kids, arresting (even justifiably) neighbors and unfortunately, using force. Many view cops as outsiders who live in different neighborhoods and towns and not invested where they patrol the way a small town cop might be. If you go back fifty years to when a lot of our urban neighborhoods were inhabited by Italians and other white ethnic groups, you’d probably see a lot of the same opinions of cops.

There is so much more to it than that. As important as residents’ perceptions of police officers is police officers’ impressions of the people they encounter. If they feel less secure with a specific looking person than another, that must be considered.

I went to law school in Milwaukee and lived there for three years. Based on recent events (this and the paragraph before were just written) and the city’s segregation, it is not without its own problems, but it has been ahead in community policing, in which police officers work right in neighborhoods, sometimes out of houses, and with residents. It is in some ways an urban version of small town policing in which officers lived and interacted among those whom they policed. Racine, Wisconsin was recently featured on NPR as an example of community policing. Community policing is a good term because it requires and involves cooperation between the police and their community. Beyond law enforcement and criminal justice, another thing to to consider is attracting public servants–teachers, firefighters, police officers and social workers–back to cities through home ownership programs and other incentives.

There is certainly a lot to talk about So rather than ask why people aren’t talking about something, see if they actually are and then what they’re saying. Then participate in the discussion. We need more of it.


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