Looking at suburban crime and police activity across suburbs

With the popularity of suburban surveillance and discussions of police behavior in suburbs, it is helpful to have data about suburban police activity and crime:

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Since 1990, arrest rates have trended downward nationwide. In suburbs, though, they have been leveling off or actually increasing since 2015, says Leah Pope, a senior research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that aims to address the causes of mass incarceration and the loss of public trust in law enforcement. Arrest rates have declined faster in cities than suburbs.

This largely comes from a drop in “Part II” crimes, she says, which covers “less serious” offenses such as vandalism, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, loitering, and more. More serious, “Part I” crimes—including murder, rape, and robbery—have been declining as well, but arrests for Part II crimes have seen a sharper drop in cities than suburbs. These are arrests for crimes that many don’t think should necessitate an arrest anyway, Vera Institute research associate Frankie Wunschel notes: They could be citations, or warnings, or simply decriminalized, in the way that marijuana has been decriminalized, but not legalized, in some states.

Some suburbs are seeing their jail populations grow, too. According to 2015 data, nearly 9 in 10 large urban counties saw their jail populations decline. Between 2014 and 2015, the jail population in the country’s 61 large urban counties fell by more than 18,000 people total—equivalent to emptying Los Angeles County jails. The jail population grew, though, in 40% of suburban, small, and midsize counties.

Racial disparities also play a role in arrests for Part II crimes. Narcotic drug laws fall under these “less serious” crimes, and in 2015, more than one in four people arrested for drug law violations were Black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race. “There are huge racial disparities in arrests, and those racial disparities are more prevalent in suburban areas than they are in urban areas,” Pope says.

There are long-standing perceptions about the safety of suburbs as well as presumption that suburban police act better. But, this data and analysis suggests this can differ dramatically across suburban communities and suburban populations. At the least, this is a reminder of the complex suburbia of today: discussions of a monolithic suburbia simply do not line up with suburban realities. Going further, crime and policing can differ across suburbs, just as it can across urban neighborhoods or cities.

From this analysis, I wonder how the variation in crime and police activity across suburbs compares to the variation between wealthier urban neighborhoods versus those urban neighborhoods not as well off.

Suburban video doorbell surveillance and race

Suburbanites have more electronic “eyes on the street” with video doorbells and other devices. Comments from sociologist Simone Brown about surveillance and race provide context for this shift:

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If you think about TV, like Cops being taken off the air or Gone With the Wind or whatever it is, there are all these ways black life is framed that shapes people’s viewing. I think it’s what Judith Butler calls a “racially saturated field of visibility,” where these stereotypes form our field of our vision. So, Rodney King bracing himself from the hits from the police, that video gets read by some folks as an act of aggression by him, as an act of violence because black men’s bodies are always figured as potentially violent…

It’s policing, but it’s like policing that now is mediated through these platforms, like Instagram and Facebook and other things. That’s not literal police, but it still is about the governing of black life and black resistance by the state or state-adjacent entities. And we know that Facebook is hand in hand with the Trump administration. So how do we then reconcile the seeming necessity of these technologies?…

That’s part of why I have this reaction when people say technology isn’t neutral, technology is biased. The fact that that needs to be said just shows you how comfortable people are with even the concept of neutral.

Exactly. And that requires like an entire upending of a lot of white folks’ ways of seeing that whiteness isn’t a neutral, police aren’t neutral. All of these things are framed by their histories. To let go of the idea of a technology, and perhaps the technology being used in the exercise of white supremacy of misogynoir or transphobia or being trans-antagonistic is a lot for many people to see. It’s an easy alibi, I think, to say that the technology made me do it.

What exactly is behind the move to install more personal cameras (and share that information with police and others on social media)? Fear of crime, intruders, destruction of personal property? Over recent decades crime rates have dropped yet the perceived need for safety at home has increased. The suburbs in general have a history of exclusion, a fear of the other, looking to avoid “urban” issues. Cameras provide the opportunity to constantly view who is around the sacred single-family home. Even if someone is just walking by on the public sidewalk or driving on the public street, these home cameras could pick them up.

Put together the racialized history of suburbs, assumptions about crime and danger in the United States, and the increase in cameras and this connects with what Browne says above. Who are the suburban cameras there to watch?

Suburban police and promoting a better future for youth

On Instagram, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez connected defunding the police to what suburbs do instead:

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A few thoughts:

1. According to sociologists and other scholars who have studied American suburbs over the last century, an overriding concern in suburbs is to protect families and let children flourish. The assumption is that suburban life – with its lower density, single-family homes, more space, better schools, lower crime – will benefit children in the long run.

2. At the same time, suburbs are also based on exclusion. For decades, only white people – and certain ones at that – were allowed in many suburbs. While this is officially off-limits today, it can be accomplished in other ways such as through exclusionary zoning, drawing school district boundaries, and through police.

3. Police can and have reinforced the race and class based exclusion in suburbs. This could range from sundown towns to watching fire bombings in Cicero, Illinois to harassing motorists, residents, and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Wealthier suburban residents generally do not want to involve the police in their conflicts but they can and do at times.

4. Many suburbs offer limited social services. The expectation is that residents will have the resources to provide for themselves or that corporations and local charities will provide.

5. Many suburbs like having their own police department. This allows them to retain local control, important for #2 and #3 above.

6. For an academic study of how this works in wealthier suburbia, I recommend America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia. From the book description:

Adolescents, parents, teachers, coaches and officials, he concludes, are able in this suburban setting to recognize teens’ need for ongoing sources of trust, empathy, and identity in a multitude of social settings, allowing them to become what Singer terms ‘relationally modern’ individuals better equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations of modern life

Closer to blanketing suburban neighborhoods with cameras (via Ring doorbells)

Police in hundreds of cities will now have access to Ring doorbell camera footage:

The doorbell-camera company Ring has quietly forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them access to homeowners’ camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls America’s “new neighborhood watch.”

The partnerships let police automatically request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area, helping officers see footage from the company’s millions of Internet-connected cameras installed nationwide, the company said. Officers don’t receive ongoing or live-video access, and homeowners can decline the requests, which are sent via emails that thank them for “making your neighborhood a safer place.”…

To seek out Ring video that has not yet been publicly shared, officers can use a special “Neighbors Portal” map interface to designate a time range and local area, up to half a square mile wide, and get Ring to send an automated email to all users within that range, alongside a case number and message from police.

The user can click to share their Ring videos, review them before sharing or, at the bottom of the email, unsubscribe from future footage-sharing requests. “If you would like to take direct action to make your neighborhood safer, this is a great opportunity,” an email supplied by Ring states.

See earlier posts about suburban police access to individual cameras and my own thinking about covering suburban neighborhoods with private cameras. Quoting from the latter post:

[I]f every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

At the same time, I suspect numerous suburbs would welcome this extra surveillance. Think of wealthier suburban neighborhoods or communities: wouldn’t they typically welcome more information on who is around their homes? This might not even be about crime but really about possible crimes or activity from ne’er-do-wells or even who should be around on streets and sidewalks (often delimited by race and class). Privacy concerns might be mitigated by the suggestion in the article that users still get to choose whether they share footage with police.

Maybe it will all quickly come to this: what about the resident in these communities who refuses to get a Ring doorbell or install security cameras? A small hole in the surveillance network could bring about pressure from neighbors to conform and protect the neighborhood.

Will the public be willing to pay more money so police and prosecutors can go through all the new video evidence they have?

The uptick in evidence from devices like video doorbells and police body cameras means more work for public servants:

But State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said prosecutors in some ways are busier than ever with new types of evidence, such as surveillance from Wifi-enabled doorbells, police body cameras and home and business surveillance, compared to several years ago.

“We’re now seeing video come in from Ring doorbells,” McMahon said this week during his monthly media briefing. “We’re now getting actual video, audio and digital information that must be reviewed and analyzed and ultimately stored.”

In recent months, video from doorbell cameras helped police arrest a burglary suspect, and data from a Ring doorbell was used to confirm the identity of a suspect in a Sleepy Hollow home invasion, attempted murder and sex assault. Both court cases are pending.

McMahon said reviewing body camera video from multiple officers responding to a violent crime or even a DUI arrest has increased the workload for prosecutors compared to several years ago.

If there is demonstrable proof that crime rates are going down or more crimes are solved because of this additional evidence, I would guess the public would provide more funds – likely through taxes – to help go through all of the evidence. But, if the evidence does not lead to much or it somehow slips through the cracks or is hacked, it might be very hard to find the public resources.

This also seems ripe for algorithms/machine learning tools to help county and municipal officials scan quickly through all these video feeds. All of this could be very expensive to do in the short-term but could help handle the increasing video streams of the future.

Learning about the notorious criminals of other major cities

In recently reading Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, I learned about several notable criminals and crimes in the largest city in the United States. This got me thinking: does every large city have its cast of unsavory lawbreakers that are relatively unknown to those who live outside the city or region?

Without reading histories of every large American city, it is hard to know. And I wonder if it is harder for these infamous characters to go unnoticed on the national scene today with the round the clock news coverage online and on TV that can talk about possibly criminal activity for hours and days without stop. On the flip side, these local characters might even become a part of civic pride or a grim experience everyone has shared or even tourist fodder. While cities can be compared on overall crime statistics (such as with claims that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States), stacking criminal individuals or groups against each other is a more nuanced task.

And would it be worthwhile to be able to name a few notable criminals from every major American city? These cases could help reveal some unique local history and character. But, they could also reinforce notions that cities are centers of crime. With so much interesting material to learn about a large city and/or a metropolitan region, criminal activity would be far down my list of what I would want to know.

Suburban ministry accepts notorious convicted murderer as resident

Suburbanites do not want to be associated with crime, particularly notorious ones. So a recent action by a Christian ministry in Aurora is notable:

Wayside Cross Ministries of Aurora officials said Monday that by accepting “Ripper Crew” murderer Thomas Kokoraleis as a resident, the organization is doing what God commands everyone to do: Show kindness and mercy to all, even enemies, the ungrateful and the wicked.

“We are mandated by our Lord Jesus Christ to love our neighbors. According to Luke 16, anyone in a genuine need is a neighbor,” Executive Director James Lukose said in a news release that Wayside Cross also posted on its website, waysidecross.org

Kokoraleis, 58, was released from prison Friday after serving half his 70-year sentence. He is not on parole, and is free to live where he wants, as long as he informs police…

Kokoraleis was one of four men suspected of killing as many as 17 women in Chicago and the suburbs in the early 1980s. His younger brother, Andrew, was one of them and was executed in 1999.

The Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial several days ago on Kokoraleis’s release:

A judge chose to sentence him to life in prison. But his conviction was struck down over legal errors, and the case was resolved with the defendant pleading guilty and being sentenced to 70 years. Thanks to the rules in effect back then, which allowed him to cut his time in half through good behavior, Kokoraleis was released Friday at age 58. He is expected to live at a Christian-oriented facility in the Wheaton area…

We won’t relitigate Thomas Kokoraleis’ case or his guilt. But we feel no hesitation in saying that life behind bars should have been the certain sentence for what he did. There is something profoundly exasperating about seeing someone who took part in such wanton slaughter being allowed to walk free among civilized people.

I wonder if this will cause any furor long-term in Aurora and the surrounding area. UPDATE APRIL 2, 2019 – The mayor of Aurora is not happy about this.

“In light of the unspeakable nature of the crimes committed by the Ripper Crew, I would hope that Wayside would reconsider the decision that brought Kokoraleis to Aurora — particularly given the Ministries’ close proximity to parks, churches and day care centers,” Irvin said in a statement Monday evening. “I absolutely disagree with Wayside Cross Ministries’ decision to allow Kokoraleis to reside at their facility in Aurora.”

Presumably, there are plenty of nearby residents with possible competing loyalties in this particular case: they would claim Christian faith and also be at least hesitant about living near such a murderer. There would be few suburban cases at this level that could push suburbanites to consider balancing justice and forgiveness – and both suburban and American history suggest they would almost always settle on the side of justice and keeping the issue as far away from their homes and community as possible.

I hope there will be a follow-up either way, whether Kokoraleis lives quietly or falls into trouble again.

Stealing a tiny house

Tiny houses can be more mobile than a larger single-family, creating opportunities for homeowners and potentially thieves:

For two years, the recent Webster University graduate had been working on the minimalist accommodation. She had drawn a floor plan, laid sheep’s wool insulation and found electric and water sources. The home rose 12 feet high, with green windows, a tin roof and stained cedar siding. Construction had cost her about $20,000…

As it took shape, the home had traveled back and forth between St. Louis and Webster Groves, where Panu’s university is located. But on Saturday morning, she received a call from the supply warehouse’s owner, who had recently invited her to park near his business, Refab.

“He asked if I had moved the tiny house overnight and when I said no, he had the unfortunate news that they hadn’t, and it was likely taken,” Panu told WTHR, an NBC affiliate…

On Wednesday, detectives found the house 30 miles down the Mississippi River in House Springs, Missouri, Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak announced on Twitter. The Associated Press reported that an anonymous tip had led them to the purloined residence. According to the Post-Dispatch, there was no word on suspects.

There has to be a way to immobilize the wheels when the tiny home is parked. Is it worth putting a boot on your own home? For those interested in putting together small communities of tiny homes, providing additional security (for a fee, of course) could be worthwhile.

It sounds like the house was discovered in one piece. Could future tiny house thieves become more crafty and either alter the exterior to hide key details or chop up the house for parts and easier movement? The article described a social media push to find the way with people reporting seeing it moving down the highway. It is hard to miss the movement of a tiny house (perhaps until they become so popular that they are being moved all the time).

 

Yahoo News leads with Chicago murders and then says it is not the murder capital

If the point of a news story/video is to say something is not true, would you lead with the data from the not true side?

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Here is the way this seems to work: grab your attention with a publicly available statistic that stands out. Oh my, how could there be so many murders in one city?? But, several sentences later, tell the reader/viewer that multiple other cities have a higher murder rate. And include in the last sentence that the murder number in Chicago has been down in recent years. So, wait: Chicago really isn’t the murder capital?

I’m trying to figure out how this adds to the public discourse. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. It is simply about clicks. Get people’s attention with a statistic and a video, throw in some data. Easy to produce, not much content.
  2. The goal is to highlight the still-high number of murders in Chicago.
  3. The goal is to point out that other cities actually experience more murders per capita.
  4. To give those who teach statistics an example of how data can be twisted and/or used without telling much of a story.

 

Murdered cats and discussing suburban troubles in the US and Britain

The Croydon Cat Killer leads to reflection on how Americans and Brits view troubles in their suburbs:

When I told a friend I was writing about the Croydon cat killer, as he (or a copycat) appears to be holidaying in Washington State, her lips collapsed into a little moue, and then she looked away. “What?” I pressed, and she paused before replying, earnestly, “But what if he comes for you?” It was a risk I’d considered, having just celebrated our kitten’s first birthday, but one I am willing to take, because this story — some believe the same man has killed more than 500 cats over the last four years — is compelling and terrifying. And it encourages obsession: It pricks at ancient anxieties.

In midcentury America, the suburbs were seen by some as a dangerous social experiment — this style of living brought sickness. Suburban men fell ill from the stress of commuting; suburban women, trapped at home, had it even worse. In a best-selling 1961 study the authors renamed these regions “Disturbia.”

The place of suburbs in our collective psyche has been on my mind recently, as last year, with great internal drama, I moved out of the city, got a cat for my daughter — pets, of course, traditionally being tools for children to practice grief upon — and settled all the way down. In Britain the idea of suburbia has none of the David Lynchian perversion or drama of the United States. But it’s still thought of as an in-between place, a punch line, where small neat gardens reflect the dimensions of their owners’ minds. Suffocating, but safe. Until a predator shatters the illusion…

A year ago, after our baby was born, my partner and I moved to the area where I grew up, to a quiet street at the end of the Northern Line where the capital opens out into golf courses and garden centers, and I immediately began boring him with much existential whining about the shame of having returned to the safety of a life I’d thought left behind. Then, a month after we moved, our house was broken into. The bed was stained with muddy footprints — the burglar had turned over our furniture and opened my face cream, seemingly confused by the lack of jewelry. That night, tidying up, my partner said quietly, “I wonder what he thought of us.” The city had broadcast its dangers, using sirens and loud lights, but we learned quickly the suburbs hide theirs; here, on school fences, cartoon drawings warn of the threat of accidents and strangers’ cars in cute, childish scribbles. Now we always keep a light on.

This is not an uncommon story: person or family moves to the suburbs expecting an ideal life centered around a home and family life. Something occurs, often a crime or unpleasant experience with some other suburbanites, that then shatters the happy suburban illusion. The suburbanite then often lives on edge. This is also the plot of innumerable movies, books, and other cultural products.

On one hand, this is very understandable. The suburbs, particularly in the United States, are often sold as an idyllic place. Neighborhoods should be safe, kids can grow up without worry and also get ahead, and families should have plenty of good times together. These things do not always happen for a variety of reasons including an emphasis on privacy (which limits both exposure to and discussions of things that may otherwise be typical events), occasional crime, and personal choices.

On the other hand, most suburban places are relatively safe. A single encounter with crime could be very traumatic. Yet, on the whole, wealthier suburban communities do have less crime. Plus, crime on the whole is down compared to several decades ago. Perhaps we just know more about the crimes that do occur – a curse of too much information – and it is hard to keep the big picture in mind.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is the setup of the suburbs as a perfect place. This is a powerful cultural narrative. Yet, no communities are perfect. Simply making it to a nice home in a nice suburb is not a guarantee of a happy life. While there has been talk of developing resiliency in cities, do we also need resilient suburbanites who are able to weather some tough situations?