Little Rock: Crime city?

Back in May, someone sent me an Internet link. When I opened it, this headline was splashed across my screen: “Little Rock Voted #1 Most Dangerous Mid-Sized City in America.”

The list, compiled by Movoto Real Estate, was based on an analysis of FBI crime data from 2012. Cities were compared using crime rates per 100,000 residents.

Flint, Mich., was No. 2.

Jackson, Miss., was No. 3.

Here’s what was written about Little Rock: “While the capital of Arkansas has received its share of accolades in recent years, including a nod from Forbes in 2011 as the second cleanest city in the country, Little Rock’s crime rate was all we looked at for this ranking. Overall, it was bad enough to warrant the city’s naming as our most dangerous mid-sized city we studied. Little Rock ranked second overall in terms of total crime with 9,378 crimes per 100,000 in 2012. The chance of being a victim of one of those crimes stood at 1 in 21. The city’s rank for property crime was only slightly better at third with 8,062 per 100,000 (1 in 24 odds) during the same period.

“It was also ranked third for murder with 23 per 100,000 and odds of 1 in 8,524. For violent crime, Little Rock placed fifth overall. There were 1,316 violent crimes per 100,000 people there in 2012, which translated to a 1 in 149 chance of being the victim of one.”

Earlier this week, crime struck home.

My mother-in-law — who retired in Little Rock several years ago following a career with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. — left her home on a sunny Monday to have lunch with a friend who was visiting from the nation’s capital. She lives at the end of a cul-de-sac in far west Little Rock.

When she returned, she found the front door kicked in. The house had been ransacked and thousands of dollars worth of items had been stolen.

I realize how easy it is for someone to say: “Oh, there goes another white guy from west Little Rock who doesn’t care about crime until it affects him.”

For several years, though, I’ve thought a lot about how crime — and the perception thereof — affects economic development in our state’s largest city.

Our mayor likes to talk about Little Rock being the “next great city.”

Greatness depends on who’s defining the word, but no one can doubt that Little Rock is at a crossroads. Future crime rates largely will determine whether the city is more Nashville or more Memphis, more Austin or more Jackson.

In September 2011, I did what many people in my age and income groups did in Little Rock — I went to the polls and voted for both a three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase for capital improvements in the city and a five-eighths of a cent sales tax increase for operations. There are a number of things in Little Rock that are being funded by that additional penny, but most of those in the majority voted for the increases primarily because they knew the dire straits that otherwise would be faced by the city’s policemen and firefighters. There were unfilled positions, worn-out vehicles, an antiquated communications system and a mold-filled police headquarters. We also looked forward to the hiring of additional code enforcement officers and hoped for some of the most rigid code enforcement in the country.

About 54 percent of those who turned out in the 2011 special election voted for the increases, which at the time were expected to raise $31.6 million a year for operations and an additional $196 million during the next decade for capital improvements. It was the city’s sixth attempt since 1981 to get a sales tax increase approved. Only two of the previous attempts had been successful, the most recent being in 1994.

You might remember 1994.

The gang situation had reached its zenith. I remember thinking that Little Rock had hit its low point on the Friday night when Chef Andre was shot in front of a full house at his crowded restaurant in the converted Hillcrest home that now houses Ciao Baci.

The year 1994 was when the HBO documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” ran over and over. HBO viewers around the world perceived of Little Rock as a sort of Detroit of the South.

Worried Little Rock citizens went to the polls in 1994 and increased the sales tax by half a penny, knowing that much of the money would be used to beef up the police force.

By September 2011, Little Rock seemingly had reached yet another turning point, and taxpayers approved another sales tax increase.

Three years have passed since that vote, yet the perception of Little Rock as a highly dangerous place lingers.

During the years I worked in politics, the commonly used phrase was “perception is reality.”

Little Rock city officials will tell you that some of these rankings are based on faulty criteria. But the national perception of Little Rock is that of a city with a crime problem. It’s a huge issue, of course, for the unfortunate people who live in the low-income neighborhoods with the highest crime rates. Yet it also becomes an economic development issue, and that’s a problem for everyone.

You don’t think perception is important?

Consider the Jonesboro economic miracle. Jonesboro had had explosive growth in recent years. The city’s leaders have done things right. Let’s not take anything away from them, but let’s also realize that there’s a perception issue that has helped Jonesboro tremendously. For decades, folks in northeast Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis. They read The Commercial Appeal each morning. They watched Memphis television stations. They went to Memphis to eat out, visit the doctor and shop.

In recent decades, the perception has grown that Memphis is a dangerous place. People in towns like Blytheville and Wynne, who once went to Memphis to visit the doctor or for a night out on the town, now go to Jonesboro. The perception of Memphis has fueled the Jonesboro miracle as that city has become the regional hub of northeast Arkansas.

Little Rock has plenty of positives its leaders can point to.

In July 2013, Little Rock was ranked No. 1 among mid-sized cities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Metro areas of 1 million or fewer residents (725,000 people live in the Little Rock MSA) were considered.

A month later, Forbes ranked central Arkansas No. 32 on its list of Best Places for Business and Careers.

Outside magazine ranked Little Rock among its best towns in 2013, saying that the city had become “a runner’s paradise.” The article talked about the Arkansas River Trail and the numerous parks in central Arkansas.

Which lists do you think people pay the most attention to?

I suspect the answer is those dangerous city rankings.

The city fathers can build all of the tech parks they want. They can add more trails. They can help revitalize downtown. But until they can find a way to further reduce crime — and end the perception of Arkansas’ capital city as a dangerous place to live or visit — nothing else they do is really going to matter.

That makes Kenton Buckner, the new Little Rock police chief, about the most important man in the city right now.

Buckner took over the Little Rock Police Department at the end of June, succeeding Stuart Thomas, who had been chief since March 2005. Buckner joined the Louisville Police Department in 1993 and became the assistant chief there in 2011.

In an interview with the Arkansas Times, he said of his approach to crime control: “I subscribe to intelligence-led policing, which basically means we have some sort of mechanism that allows us to gather, analyze and disseminate information. From that information, I think you look at hot spots and focused deterrence. Look at locations where crime is occurring or is likely to occur and focus deterrence — focus in on the key individuals who are causing problems in those areas. The reason that is important is so we do not alienate the public that we’re trying to protect, and who we are asking to work with us, with the kind of ‘net fishing’ that you’ve seen some agencies do with the stop-and-frisk and the zero tolerance. Those things are very short-sighted, in my opinion. They offer short-term success and, in many instances, it scars the community and the trust and relationship that you have with them.”

While not asking Buckner to go against his philosophy, I do wish city employees (including code enforcement officers) would subscribe more to the so-called broken windows theory.

In a landmark 1982 article for The Atlantic, two college professors advanced the theory that maintaining public order also helps prevent crime.

“If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling wrote.

Wilson, who taught at Harvard and UCLA, died in 2012.

Kelling is retired from Rutgers but still going strong at age 78 as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The theory was applied by two New York City police commissioners, William Bratton and Raymond Kelly. Crime rates fell, real estate values soared and New York thrived.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Housing Survey, the number of broken windows in the New York metropolitan area plunged during the past decade.

Kelling told The New York Times: “Taking care of broken windows reduces crime. Taking care of crime reduces broken windows. I’ve never been long on arrests as an outcome.”

He said zero-tolerance policies represent “zealotry and no discretion — the opposite of what I tried to preach. In an urbanized society, in a world of strangers, civility and orderliness is an end in itself.”

Here’s part of what Kelling and Wilson wrote in the original article: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

“Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

In other words, fix problems when they’re still small.

While they’re at it, Buckner, City Manager Bruce Moore and Mayor Mark Stodola might even look at the Safe Streets Program that was instituted by Albuquerque, N.M., in the late 1990s. The theory was that people in other parts of the country use roadways much like New Yorkers use subways. Lawlessness on the roadways therefore has the same effect as it does in the subways of New York.

I make the drive from far west Little Rock to downtown each morning on Cantrell Road. Each day I watch self-indulgent idiots run red lights and speed through school zones. I’ve never seen one of them pulled over. There’s indeed a sense of lawlessness on the streets of Little Rock, and the problem seems to be getting worse. I can’t help thinking that this is a city that, in certain ways, feels broken.

“I understand that there are a lot of historical scars in this community and this police department as there are in most communities that have an urban environment,” Buckner told the Arkansas Times. “Police and African-American communities and Hispanic communities historically don’t have a very strong relationship. I can’t subscribe to that. I can’t surrender to that. My job is to build those relationship bridges where we can to get them to come to the table. All of that starts with trust. Trust is built with deposits of good will, and I think we’re doing a lot of things in the police department to get some of those conversations started.”

I agree with the new chief that trust is important.

So are results.

It’s important for all Arkansans that the state’s capital city do well economically. You look at the downtown revitalization of Little Rock and feel hopeful on the one hand. On the other hand, recent job creation statistics in Arkansas have been abysmal. We’re near the bottom nationally.

Little Rock is at a turning point.

More like Memphis or more like Nashville?

More like Jackson or more like Austin?

A hip urban environment or a new round of white flight to Cabot, Conway, Benton and Bryant?

More than anything else, the crime statistics the next five years will tell the story.

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