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Opinion: Overcoming the Sound of Fear With the Sound of Reform

A true community conversation is more than a slogan or a program, it's a way to break the cycle of fear, crime, and mutual misunderstanding

cornell william brooks

The sound of fear can be the metallic click of a car door lock when driving through an uncertain neighborhood, whether or not the driver is aware of, say, a dubious record of at least 475 carjackings in Essex County last year.

The sound of fear is the anxious tone of a mother filtered through a mobile phone to her slightly annoyed teenage son, asking “where are you and when are you coming home?” A mom or dad’s anxiety may be grounded in the fact that while overall crime in New Jersey is statistically down, violent crimes like murder and rape are significantly and disturbingly up. Recent shootings in Trenton, Camden and Newark have generated headlines and heartache in equal measure.

The sound of fear is also the breathless sigh that accompanies reading yet one more story in the morning paper about yet another senseless shooting and sickening death -- somebody else’s child somewhere else, whether a city block away or a suburban town distant.

The sound of fear can also be the silence accompanying the unspoken assumption that violence in some neighborhoods, as a modern reality, is regrettable but somehow more acceptable in cities rather than suburbs, among urban youth rather than suburban teenagers.

The fear of crime and violence, whether race-neutral and reasoned or racialized and irrational, drives criminal justice policy and policing strategy -- from three strikes and you're out laws that can result in some nonviolent addicts, rather than violent career criminals, being locked up for near eternity to stop-and-frisk policing that has resulted in a generation of innocent young people with arrest records without convictions.

The sound of fear cannot and should not be ignored, whether reasoned or irrational.

Recent research, however, makes clear that the sound of reform in reducing violence is often the sound of neighbors (distant and nearby) talking, community conversation and grassroots civic dialogue -- with tough, smart, and fair community policing.

With a spate of shootings in Trenton, Newark, and Camden, now is a particularly propitious time to convene a series of conversations on violence reduction. The point of the conversation is not mere talk but relationships built on trust that foster not only legitimacy but effective violence reduction strategies -- whether those employed by formal law enforcement figures (the police) or unofficial law enforcement authority figures (parents, clergy, neighbors, and civic leaders).

Yale Law School professors Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler demonstrate one critical element to deterring crime is whether individuals and communities are treated with fairness, courtesy, and respect in the investigating of crime by police. There is a compellingly large body of evidence that makes clear that legitimacy is more effective than intimidation in encouraging law-abiding behavior.

Indeed, the research demonstrates that to reduce violence in the most effective and efficient manner, you have to have community buy-in. To have community buy-in, the law, the police, and policing strategies must have legitimacy. When people regard the police as a legitimate law enforcement presence rather than an illegitimate occupying army, they partner with police to make policing more effective and communities safer. Police patrols and investigations are strengthened with community cooperation.

In other words, hiring more police or rehiring laid-off officers amid cash-strapped municipal budgets is important but not necessarily effective without community engagement. Official and closed-door budget talks about finding more money to put more cops on the beat are fiscal conversations that are not necessarily violence reduction discussions.

Communities around the country that have seen reductions in crime have done so, in part, by engaging the community in a purposeful discussion on violence reduction.

Community conversation matters. Relationships matter. When the police have trust-driven relationships with clergy, civic leaders, community stakeholders, neighborhood elders, and younger law-abiding former offenders, both police officers and the communities they serve are safer.

To those who wonder aloud, haven’t we done this before? It is important to remember that cities like Boston have employed community engagement strategies and seen sustained drastic violence reductions -- and thereafter experienced community engagement challenges and/or the need for new strategies, and watched crime edge upward. Renewed and sustained community engagement, like community safety or even national defense, is a matter of ongoing vigilance.

The much-heralded “Boston Miracle” in violence reduction was built, in part, on the moral standing and credibility of a group of ministers enlisting a city of partners to reduce crime. To be clear, community engagement must be authentic, organic, grassroots and built on trusting relationships. It is not a tactic, a grant vehicle or a mere program.

One means to overcome the deafening sound of fear in many of our communities is with the sound of reform: serious and sustained community conversation, structured civic dialogue and planned convenings reveal which community violence reduction strategies work, provide critical feedback to law enforcement, and that encourage both legitimacy and law-abiding conduct.

Cornell William Brooks, Esq., is president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

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