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My View: Using what we used to know to ensure healthy communities

By Henri Sisneros

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, July 7 2014 1:06 p.m. MDT

Not one more dollar spent? A safer community? A commitment to what works means we must formally assess later whether the strategies worked. So we have to stay tuned.

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“Mr. Daniels,” a single father, worked at night and was often out of town. His children, including two documented gang members and their friends, blasted music, used alcohol and drugs and wreaked havoc on their quiet neighborhood. Police records showed officers had responded to complaints at the residence over 100 times in the last two years.

Other agencies knew of the troubled family, too. The mayor’s office and City Council staffers were inundated with neighbor calls. The Division of Child and Family Services had conducted a number of child welfare investigations. Even city zoning officers knew about the unkempt yard and house.

This was a family in crisis, yet despite the chronic nature of the problems, government agencies seemed unable to react proactively and productively to address them. Their failure stood in stark contrast to the extensive resources that had already been expended.

An often-used tool of police putting someone in jail seemed unlikely to address the problems.

In modern communities, our “nation of cities,” a family may exist in isolation, an island amongst their neighbors. Why is this so? We most often live in urban environments versus the rural communities of yesterday. And we live where we work in a highly mobile, capitalist system. Plus, we live apart from our extended families, and particularly older relatives, that in times past helped raise our children. Without a caring, supportive community, a family can be an island amongst many.

A previous column discussed how drug and re-entry courts, by creating a caring, supportive community, act a lot like a family, creating an environment where offenders may change how they think about their antisocial choices and thereby, may choose to change how they act. We learned that what works, what the evidence proves, in healthy families can work to improve outcomes amongst those who struggle in our justice system.

Now we may consider that what makes a community healthy might be replicated in other communities.

Think of this phenomenon as the “Mayberry Effect,” after Andy Griffith of TV’s Mayberry. In that show, a genial Sheriff Andy kept a close watch on Mayberry’s citizens. He knew everybody. He worked closely with the town’s best citizens solving problems in a folksy manner. Most importantly, he was a citizen of Mayberry, living there and caring for his neighbors.

How Sheriff Andy worked can serve as a template for the best policing and community practices and theory.

First, the “Broken Windows Theory,” first proposed in the early 1980s, may have been the earliest criminological theory that rested on an intuitive understanding that problems of modern society might be addressed by relying on what we knew when we were a “nation of villages.”

The theory holds that in urban environments, rather than disregarding minor signs of disorder, such as a broken window in an abandoned building, we should actively and aggressively maintain, monitor and combat the disorder: fix the broken window, paint over graffiti, target low-level offenses. Not only does this reduce low-level activity like vandalism, it also deters more serious crime.

The second theory is to develop community-oriented initiatives in policing, prosecution and courts. This has two prongs: (1) partner with community members and organizations to (2) identify chronic issues and actively try to solve them.

Remember the Daniels family? A Salt Lake City Community Action Team — one of the country’s first — received the support and scrutiny of an engaged juvenile court judge.

The third idea is to use data-driven practices to direct resources to address problems, or in other words, target the problems.

On May 20, 2014, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank announced that he intends to direct his department’s resources to the Rio Grande District because the concentrated urban environment has led to concentrated problems: 33 percent of the city’s crime occurs there, and almost 1 out of 5 police calls are made there.

Sheriff Burbank brings the wisdom of Sheriff Andy from the imaginary town of Mayberry to the toughest streets of our city.

For example, traffic enforcement in high-crime areas deters crime effectively and affordably.

Like drug and re-entry courts, these practices changed the DNA of progressive law enforcement agencies. They put public servants back into the neighborhoods they serve. They are what works as crime rates have been cut in half over the last 20 years.

We sometimes think of officers in black tactical gear, armed with military-style rifles. We should also focus on neighborhood officers, walking the beat, who know the communities they work in and lead community partners to address chronic public safety issues.

As good citizens concerned with how public monies are spent, we must ask: “What’s the bill for this?”

Chris Burbank’s answer: There is none. He intends to use the fine officers he already has.

Not one more dollar spent? A safer community? A commitment to what works means we must formally access later whether the strategies worked. So we have to stay tuned.

Henri Sisneros is a criminal lawyer and justice system leader from Salt Lake City. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he worked as an assistant United States attorney and assistant federal defender.

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