The Neighborhood War Zone

David Kennedy, Washington Post, August 13, 2006

NEW YORK — The United States is losing the war in Iraq; more specifically, Philadelphia is. This war is at home, in the city’s 12th Police District, where shootings have almost doubled over the past year and residents have spray-painted “IRAQ” in huge letters on abandoned buildings to mark the devastation.

It is a story being repeated up and down the East Coast and across the nation. In Boston, where the homicide rate is soaring, Analicia Perry , a 20-year-old mother, was shot and killed several weeks ago — while visiting the street shrine marking the site of her brother’s death on the same date four years earlier. Last Tuesday, Orlando’s homicide count for this year reached 37, surpassing the city’s previous annual high of 36 in 1982. And in Washington, D.C., where 14 people were killed in the first 12 days of July, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey declared a state of emergency.

Not long ago, the United States was declaring “mission accomplished” on crime: Homicide rates were plunging, the crack epidemic was over, the broken windows were fixed. Now, preliminary FBI statistics show that homicides rose nearly 5 percent in 2005, and news from around the country suggests that 2006 is looking worse. Our many Iraqs at home are making it clear that the self-congratulation was premature. In reality, Americans were lulled into complacency about violent crime. And two new factors have emerged: Some of the law enforcement tactics used to fight crime in recent years damaged the social fabric in many communities and contributed to increased crime. More important has been the spread of a virulent thug ethos — an obsession with “respect” that has made killing a legitimate response to the most minor snubs and slights. In parts of the District’s Anacostia neighborhood today, a young man knows that the wrong kind of eye contact with the wrong person — a “hard look” — can cost him his life.

The celebration about crime reductions should have been tempered by caution. The good news was real enough: In New York City, homicides fell an astonishing 76 percent, from 2,245 in 1990 to 539 in 2005. Most observers — myself included — gave a good deal of the credit to the city’s newly focused and entrepreneurial police department. In Boston, Operation Ceasefire — which I helped design as a Harvard researcher in 1996 — brought an unprecedented partnership of law enforcement, social service providers and community leaders into sustained face-to-face contact with drug crews; told them to stop shooting one another; and offered them help. Homicides in the city plunged to lows not seen since the 1960s.

The national numbers followed suit, but not evenly. Although homicides in New York City dropped to a rate of about 6.6 victims per 100,000 people last year, Buffalo came down from a peak of 90 killings in 1994 but still had 63 homicides in 2003, for a rate of 22 victims per 100,000 residents. And Chicago fell from a 1992 peak of 939 homicides but remained stubbornly in the 600 to 700 range during the next decade, for a 2002 rate of about 22 per 100,000 people.

Many jurisdictions made progress only to lose ground shortly thereafter. Philadelphia peaked at 420 homicides in 1996, fell to 292 in 1999, and climbed back to 380 last year. Boston’s 1990s “miracle” ended abruptly as petty rivalries shattered the Ceasefire coalition, and killings increased from 31 in 1999 to 73 in 2005.

At the same time, gang and drug problems were showing up in smaller cities and towns — another disturbing and largely unnoticed shift. In 2005, jurisdictions with populations between 50,000 and 250,000 saw homicide increases of about 12.5 percent — far larger than the big cities.

And even those local numbers tell only part of the story. Serious crime is concentrated in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and in certain areas within them. For people who live in the Anacostia area of Washington, in the Nickerson Gardens housing complex in South Los Angeles, and on Magnolia Street in Boston, the citywide statistics have always been meaningless. Their neighborhoods are war zones.

In the District, attacks on tourists on the Mall and on a political activist in Georgetown may grab headlines, but it is the everyday violence in troubled neighborhoods that drives up the body count. Boston has so many street memorials for homicide victims that the city is considering regulating them.

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