by Gregory Saville
Thinking of the upcoming year and a resolution on how to improve our SafeGrowth work, I recently watched two new films on the brilliant Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, On The Basis of Sex and RBG.
The life of Justice Ginsberg illustrates the very complex role of law and how law influences social causes – for example, protecting one group from the injustice of another, safeguarding civil rights for oppressed minorities or enforcing the rights of women. Important causes.
But, as an adolescent, I didn’t think much about the law. It rarely, if ever, deterred my mischief-making, usually because I didn’t know it existed. As a cop I considered it a blunt tool to do the job. Penalties were out of touch and enforcement was handcuffed by archaic rules.
As a crime prevention consultant, law seemed an irrelevant part of safer communities. We’ve cut crime in high crime neighborhoods and not used formal law at all. Nada!
Jane Jacobs once said, “the public peace is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves…”
So, if neighborhoods are kept safe by informal rules and voluntary standards, why bother with formal law? What purpose can it possibly serve except to provide over-zealous litigation attorneys fodder for excessive contingency fees and enforcement officials a reason to exist?
A VOICE TO THE SILENT
We’ve blogged before on how safe neighborhoods emerge from organized groups trained to come up with solutions to problems. As we describe in our new SafeGrowth book, there are few more powerful tools than local leaders of influence working with properly trained and resourced residents and community partners. In fact, that’s the training we provide for neighborhood activation – 1st & 2nd Generation CPTED, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and organizing skills. Residents thrive when they know what to do and how to do it.
Yet we have learned over the past few years that neighborhood activation does not always work. In more and more cases, specific causes for local communities (land use gentrification; infrastructure improvements) are derailed into social causes for society at large (social inequity; unfair legal system). This derailing usually takes the form of hijacking by interest groups – powerful developers want one thing. Social activists want another.
To be clear, activists are a great ally for implementing neighborhood safety plans. After all, Jane Jacobs began her career as an activist. But hijacking is a terrible way to build social cohesion.
MICRO AGGRESSIONS, PSEUDO-SCIENCE, OBSCURE LANGUAGE
Hijacking derails conflict resolution and it derails organized plans. I have seen hijackers declare “micro-aggressions” to attack those who disagree with their cause. It’s an effective derailing method. After all, who can defend against specious claims of prejudice or biased intent when another person’s intention is unknown?
Equally, I have seen powerful politicians derail neighborhood safety plans by touting scientific studies on security and CCTV. It happens when police executives defend questionable police tactics, like stop-and-frisk, and cite sketchy research.
Those too are effective derailments. After all, who can argue with “science” if the quality of those studies is unknown by the public or written in obscure statistical jargon that only an encryption expert could decipher?
Hijacking works because residents often have difficulty choosing one social cause over another in order to accomplish the safety they desire. Interestingly, they rarely have difficulty selecting specific local crime problems that demolish their quality of life. That’s why we spend so much time carefully assessing local problems and analyzing specific crimes. That is why community-collected data and collaborative analysis drives the SafeGrowth plan.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS
Sadly, even those efforts can fail in the face of powerful political derailment. It is at those precise moments - as local efforts falter and special interests hijack local plans for improvement - when we can call on the very same legal principles that apply to large scale social causes and the interests of the powerful. That is because, in an open democracy with rule of law, those same legal principles are also available to the neighborhood. True, they are difficult to muster, especially with expensive legal costs. They may take a long time – courts are painfully slow and inefficient (it took Ginsberg decades to help change laws discriminating against women).
Law represents a procedural method for taking arguments public. It is no guarantee and my lawyer friends insist law should be used only as a last resort. Legal procedure requires removing the issue from local politics and – at least theoretically – from politics at large. The law demands arguments from different sides, with clearly established rules of evidence. It strives, albeit imperfectly, for an objective airing of facts. It is, in many cases, our last line of defense against derailments.
In SafeGrowth we strive to establish a collaborative environment and a civil way to resolve conflict. We train and we organize. In a vast majority of cases, we are successful. But not in every case.
I have always thought the law was a terribly ineffective system of truth or justice. But, when all else fails, the rule of law is probably the best last resort available to us. In Politics, Aristotle claimed, “it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens”. The life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg shows how true that is.