Gangs? Violence? Break-ins? Remember when we didn't have to lock our doors at home, could leave our windows open at night or walk in the neighborhood in the evening?
In the early '80s, we would drive to Harmons in Sugar House and leave our car with the windows open while we shopped. We felt safe. Moving back to Salt Lake from Washington, D.C., two years later felt like a new world: doors and windows locked and people worried about walking outside at night. Now we see grills on front doors, bars on windows, chain-link fences, gated communities, more alarm systems and private security.
But not to worry. The experts tell us crime is down. So, why do we feel less secure and like we're losing our sense of freedom? Are the experts wrong? They may be right, but people live by their own perceptions of reality. It's the unknown and unpredictable that frighten us.
Today we see more youths without supervision committing random and violent crimes, more parents struggling to make a living, many working two jobs and creating a generation of latchkey kids who are raised by different caregivers and the Internet. Our ability to transmit information and values has exploded: podcast, television, Internet, YouTube, cable TV, texting.
The best way to allay fear among the public is to overcome misperceptions by providing people with timely and accurate information that lets them know how safe their communities, neighborhoods and schools are. So why is it youths today can use the latest technology to communicate instantly, but our state and local law enforcement can't tell us how safe are our communities, neighborhoods, homes and schools? Now a citizen has to hunt through convoluted agency Web sites that display tables of statistics that don't help, and agencies have answering machines that tell you to leave a number.
It is not that resources and legislation are lacking; President Ronald Reagan's new federalism gave block grants to governors to plan and implement ways to reduce crime. Utah created the Commission on Crime and Juvenile Justice to carry out that mandate with the Legislature, making it the lead agency to "study, evaluate, and report on the status of crime ... provide public information on the criminal and juvenile justice system" and promote policies that reduce crime the bottom line. Law enforcement agencies are "supposed" to provide data about crime to CCJJ, but that doesn't seem to happen. It's in the law.
The recent outburst of gang violence, with the media attention, creates fear in citizens who have no information of how safe their neighborhoods really are. What we have are politicians who have done nothing and quickly call for tougher laws. What the public gets are more gang conferences (how many have we had?) where the experts showcase the latest gang signs, attire and weapons; then, all go back and do the same thing they were doing before. People need and have a right to know how safe their communities are, so they can take action instead of living in fear for lack of information.
What we fail to realize is the answers to the problems of crime and delinquency do not rest in the halls of bureaucracies, the courts and law-enforcement agencies, but rather in local communities. Crime is a local problem, and the solutions are local. Rather than top-down solutions, why not give resources to the local elected city and county officials who have to live with the problem and answer to their voters?The state should provide timely information that is accurate, readily available and easy to understand so citizens could make an informed judgment about the safety of their community and where to put the resources. Crime is a hometown fight.
A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]