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For crime to end, residents must take stand against it

Published May 25, 2003

I spent much of last Thursday morning and early afternoon talking to 20 Midtown residents, average people who do not hold any positions of power. All are African-American. I spoke with these people to get a sense of the mood in the area related to Police chief Chuck Harmon's announcement that the police department intends to rid the city of the most violent elements of drug trafficking.

Harmon especially wants to remove the increasing number of military-style weapons drug operatives seem to favor.

To this end, the chief will transfer up to a third of the officers in the community policing program to a drug task force that will work as long as a month at targeting career offenders. The task force will get assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The long-overdue effort and announcement come in the wake of last month's gang-related shootouts that left two people dead - one of them 41-year-old Cynthia Bethune, an innocent bystander and mother of four.

A major part of the good news is that Mayor Rick Baker fully backs the initiative.

Only three of the people with whom I spoke, unemployed men in their early 20s, oppose the task force. Everyone else wants the police to crack down as hard as possible on street dealers and those who supply them. Harmon is certain to get a lot of flack from the Uhurus and their white supporters (whites who do not live in Midtown), who view police presence as a problem in Midtown.

If I know anything about Harmon, he will press ahead.

The police cannot get the job done alone. Midtown residents must help. They must help the police help them improve the quality of their lives. The streets and corners where traffickers ply their trade are in front of the homes of ordinary residents, many of whom get up each morning and go to legitimate jobs and send their children to school.

I stood on a corner near Perkins Elementary that has become a dangerous outpost for bold dealers, some of them using bicycles to serve their clients. In broad daylight, young black men break the law with impunity. They can do so only because residents turn a blind eye to such activity. Residents know who these people are, but they do not tell the police.

Such silence equals complicity.

I have never understood how hard-working, law-abiding people can stand by and watch criminals jeopardize their safety and devalue their property and turn their homes into virtual prisons.

The mayor is determined to bring some semblance of economic development and stability to Midtown. But his vision will not become reality until people with money are willing to invest in the area. I am not a business owner, but I understand at least one thing about private business: It hates crime and perceptions of danger and negative attention.

Not many large businesses will do what Walgreen Drug Stores did - build in the heart of Midtown even while crimes are committed all around its property. Not many businesses will do what Badcock did - rebuild after having been burned down during a riot. These businesses are exceptions, and no one in his or her right mind should expect other corporations to follow.

If crime, or perceptions of crime, were low in Midtown and it stayed out of the headlines, more Walgreens and Badcocks would come in. Again, Midtown residents could help by becoming the eyes and ears of the police. Residents themselves have got to want a better quality of life.

I look for ways to spend money in Midtown, but I find very few things that I want there. Life there is not good. Why must older people without transportation be forced to pay huge sums to shop at small markets because they can't get to a Publix or Winn-Dixie? Why must residents have to travel 2 miles or more to eat a good meal after the sun goes down? Why must the average citizen have to go outside the area to bank?

In the same light, should anyone be surprised that white parents have chosen to keep their children out of the new schools being built in and near Midtown?

I would be naive to lay all the blame for Midtown's problems on criminals, but I would not be naive to blame perceptions of crime for much of the crisis. And I will say this: Midtown residents have only themselves to blame for letting the crime problem fester.

Criminals do not hang out where citizens do not tolerate them.

Economic development will not occur in Midtown until it gains a reputation for being a safe place where investments will pay off. Chief Harmon and Mayor Baker need the help of ordinary residents who are willing to do the hard work of caring about their communities with action.

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