Candidates, quit inciting fear over crime

The Observer editorial board

Joel Ford is among those trying to make crime a major issue in this year’s Charlotte mayoral race.
Joel Ford is among those trying to make crime a major issue in this year’s Charlotte mayoral race. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

It would be refreshing to hear these words come from the lips of one of the candidates vying to become Charlotte’s next mayor, or any of the city’s leaders:

“No one truly knows why the crime rate falls when it does or why it rises. The country’s best researchers and criminologists did not forecast the decades-long drop in crime we’ve experienced since the 1990s. In fact, some argued crime would only worsen and alluded to an army of ‘super predator’ teen criminals who would multiply and make our streets virtual warzones. The experts don’t know why the opposite happened. They can’t say if a recent uptick in crime in some major cities is the end of that trend or a blip in an otherwise historic trend that has led to one of the safest periods in American history. The best we can do is keep hard after determined criminals; deter as many would-be criminals as possible; keep trying to understand the complex set of factors that leads to someone deciding to break the law; implement policies we have reason to believe might work; ditch ones that don’t show promise after they’ve been given adequate time to be implemented and tested; and make sure the police are fully supported – but also fully held accountable when they step over the line.”

Instead, we are treated, once again, to the age-old political game of empty rhetoric designed not to rationally face a complex issue, but to gin up fear and win the votes of the afraid. True leaders inspire us to become our best selves, not to cowardly follow the person who sounds toughest because they are willing to sound off on simple solutions that have little chance to improve things.

Kenny Smith’s ad shouting “crime is out of control” in Charlotte doesn’t help, because crime is not out of control, even though a recent rise must be tackled head on and not ignored – but tackled rationally, not rashly. Neither does jockeying by the mayor and City Council members about who really supports the police and who doesn’t. A police officer’s declaration that CMPD officers act tentatively for fear of criticism (the “Ferguson effect”) has only further muddied the waters.

Crime, particularly the violent variety, has long been used to manipulate the public’s feelings. When that manipulation has been most effective, it has led to policies that have created more problems than they have solved. That’s what happened in the ’90s with the doubling-down on the war on drugs and bipartisan implementation of mandatory minimum sentencing that helped explode the prison population and harmed the most vulnerable families. It also led to an extra financial burden on taxpayers whose wages were barely keeping pace with inflation. Only in recent years have states, many in the South, rethought those policies because they were busting budgets.

We need clear-headed thinking on an issue as serious as violent crime. Charlotte leaders, you can do better. For the sake of us all, you must.