City shouldn't need armed citizen patrols

Most people can relate to the anger Scott Yamanashi feels. In April a robber shot him, and now he has organized Charlotte's first armed citizen patrol group. It's an emphatic effort to tell lawbreakers they are not welcome in his part of town.

Here's the message that startling development really sends: Residents in at least one place feel they have to take matters in their own hands to make things change.

That's wrong, and it ought not to stand. Charlotte's new police chief and its City Council must do more than talk about changes in crime-fighting policies and resource levels. They must act – now.

Mr. Yamanashi's approach – arming citizen patrols – is risky. It invites further lawlessness. Yet who can fault him for wanting to take strong steps? Charlotte's violent crime lept 15.3 percent in the first three months of 2008; property crime grew 11.9 percent over the same period in 2007. Almost every aspect of a community feels the impact from such an increase.

Why is it happening? A rise in crime goes hand in hand with an economic downturn. People lose jobs. More families slip behind. Addiction rises. Charlotte, a crossroads for commerce and a metropolitan area, draws people who have hit hard times elsewhere and migrate seeking a new start.

Yet there's another factor – an important one. Nearly three decades of rapid urban growth has made Charlotte's public safety needs more complicated, and more intensive. The city fell behind in the past 15 years because City Council didn't hire enough new officers as the population and complexity of enforcement grew. That can't continue.

What needs to happen?

Local governments can't do much about overwhelmed, underfunded state courts that feed the problem. Charlotte-Mecklenburg is already spending millions to shore up courts here.

Yet Charlotte can put more boots on the ground policing neighborhoods. Step one is for new Police Chief Rodney Monroe to reassign more officers to patrols. That ought to happen immediately.

Step two is for elected leaders to devise a plan for funding public safety that ties an increase in police officers directly to growth – and prioritizes preventive efforts such as after-school programs.

When crime goes up in a community, there's a tipping point. It's reached when fearfulness about safety prompts most reasonable people to alter normal routines and everyday behavior.

That tipping point has come for many in Charlotte. The emergence of the first armed citizen patrol is a warning we ignore at our own risk. People don't want to live in or visit a place where citizens feel they must strap on weapons and patrol the streets to keep crime at bay.