by Gregory Saville
By popular accounts, South-Central Los Angeles is a chaotic place – a place where the community has collapsed and people live in fear. A quarter-million people suffer poverty rates over 30%. Half of the city’s murders and hundreds of gang shootings emerge from South-Central. Popular films, like South-Central and Colors paint a bleak picture.
This year alone LAPD reports 100 homicides in South-Central, a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000, eight times higher than the national average and more than any other country in the world, except El Salvador.
The fact that there is gang violence and racial conflict is not news. The more interesting questions are: If neighborhood culture has collapsed, why isn’t it so much worse? How does a family even survive in such a place? Why has it been getting better over the past few decades (notwithstanding increases in homicide this past year)?
Do conditions in South-Central simply reflect basic human behavior in our natural state? When the chips are down, do we just become beasts? If so, how does South-Central still survive?
Thomas Hobbes wrote that our natural state was self-serving and violent. At the moment of collapse, for example following a catastrophe, people revert to their natural “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short” lives.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, argued the opposite – humans are basically good and, following a cultural collapse, we will end up finding ways to cohabitate. “Nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state,” he wrote in 1754.
What does history suggest?
COLLAPSE IS NORMAL
The Golden Age of Ancient Greece lasted for centuries. That remarkable, but fatally flawed, Hellenistic society never managed to eliminate slavery or internecine conflict and they eventually gave way to the Romans. Of course, Greek city-states did not vanish and their citizens did not perish. They continued on under Roman rule until, eventually, the Roman empire collapsed.
The Romans absorbed Greek culture, technology, and engineering, advancements we still use today. In fact, we base our contemporary democracy, science, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy on some of those early Greco-Roman discoveries.
People imagine the fall of the Roman empire as some cataclysmic war or conquering marauders burning Rome as Emperor Nero watched. In fact, after the Western Roman Empire faded, the Eastern Roman Empire transformed into the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). And the ancestors of the Byzantine Empire became the Ottoman Empire. Today 80 million people, the progeny of those empires, live comfortably as citizens of the modern nation of Turkey.
It’s the same all over the world. Societies emerge, thrive, and collapse, but their demise does not signal a return to permanent chaos under a violent short life. Human nature is not permanently brutish.
THE PROGRESSION OF HISTORY
Life may be brutish for a while, but history suggests Rousseau was onto something. Life doesn’t remain brutish – actually the opposite. People find a way forward.
Consider the treatise of Harvard’s Pulitzer-winning author Steven Pinker, arguably the leading American scholar today on matters of mind and culture. His widely heralded book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined studies the history of violence and civilization from one era to another. In each subsequent era, he discovers the persistent decline of violence through history and the emerging civilizing effect of rational thought.
Even today, when rational thought seems a distant dream, collapse from social chaos rarely lasts. Human nature, he says, is both brutish and beneficent at the same time. Rousseau and Hobbes were both right and wrong.
That brings us back to South-Central and a marvelous book by Cid Martinez, The Neighborhood Has Its Own Rules: Latinos and African-Americans in South Los Angeles. Martinez studied the social disorganization (and ultimately, re-organization) of cultural life in South-Central ten years following the infamous Rodney King riots.
FLASHBACK: If you don’t recall the 1992 LA Riots, they followed video coverage of a police beating of motorist Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers responsible. It led to days of rioting, 63 deaths, and 2,000 injuries. Hundreds of stores burned and over 12,000 people were arrested. By all accounts, society collapsed in South Central.
Matinez spent a year living in South Central studying the culture and his conclusions echoed both our findings during our SafeGrowth programming and the conclusions of Pinker in Better Angels.
He found order within the disorder. People discovered a way to be civilized when some of those around them could not. Says one reviewer:
“Despite the many divisions that South Los Angeles residents have from each other…Martinez finds unexpected commonalities among Latin American and African-American residents. Because residents do not perceive state actors as legitimate, they turn to each other to provide social organization.”
Martinez calls this special ordering “alternative governance” and, while it is certainly not an ideal way to run a society, as elsewhere when enough people cultivate the beneficient side to human nature they can make their community function.
We retain this Rousseau-style lesson as a central philosophy of SafeGrowth programming. We call it the To/For/With principle and time and time again, we see people turn their own community back from the brink of crime.
Life isn’t always, or even mostly, brutish and short. As they always have, people find a way forward.
by Mateja Mihinjac
As we enter a new decade, I can’t help but wonder: How might my work and the work of other safety and crime prevention professionals be affected as temperatures continue to rise and weather conditions become even more extreme?
I am fortunate to have lived and worked in various countries, including Australia and Canada. People often associate the first with hot weather and beaches and the latter with cold winters and snow. This is especially true at this time of year when large parts of Australia are experiencing extremely high temperatures and devastating fires while Canada may be bracing for the next polar vortex this winter.
Are these two countries, on the opposite sides of the globe, struggling with contrasting environmental conditions that relate directly to contrasting crime and safety concerns?
There is long-standing research on violence and the thermal environment, or what is sometimes called the seasonality of crime. It reminded me of research I came across a few years ago about the possible association between temperature and crime.
That research found a correlation between warmer weather and various forms of crime and incidents and attributed this to an increase in outdoor activities during warmer days. The researchers of this study in Philadelphia also suggested that extreme temperatures, especially extremely cold, have the opposite effect as people are discouraged to go outdoors.
However, there is Canadian research contradicting that view and suggesting violence can also increase at the opposite end of the thermal scale.
One 1995 study in Canada’s Arctic Nunavut Territory reported that violence rates among the Inuit in the north were far higher in Baffin Island villages (most of which are above the Arctic Circle) than those in the warmer cities over a thousand miles (2,000 kilometers) to the south.
THERMAL EXTREMES AND VIOLENCE
While the Arctic study is explained through cultural and sociological causes, the Philadelphia study falls into a group of opportunity-theories that suggest comfortable weather conditions at any time of the year (warm gentle summers, balmy winters) are associated with the increased number of people outdoors resulting in increased concentration of both targets and potential offenders.
Other studies suggest the rise in alcohol consumption during the hot months of the year contributes more to murders and sexual assault, as well as other crimes such as road rage. This is especially a problem where temperature variations are large. Therefore, in these instances, it appears extremes in high temperatures or mango madness might be behind violent and aggressive behavior.
The homicide data in the State of Queensland, Australia for the past 22 years show a somewhat increased homicide rate during the hottest months of the year: December and January. This association was especially strong for the tropical north where temperatures are most extreme.
A NEW PATTERN EMERGES
However, when the data were examined for the Brisbane City police division for both homicide and all crimes respectively, they found no identifiable monthly patterns. This suggests that while temperature conditions may be part of the crime puzzle, we cannot draw conclusions about crime based on this single variable.
Perhaps thermal effects on violence apply to both high and low-temperature extremes, as the Canadian research suggests? It seems that the opportunity-theory does not always explain why some places are less safe than others, especially in relation to temperature.
This has been our experience during SafeGrowth programming in neighborhoods throughout the world. Even with extreme temperatures, healthy and vibrant neighborhoods with plenty of pro-social opportunities tend to be safer. Could it be that, whatever temperature extremes a community suffers, opportunities for pro-social behavior are a powerful prescription for building healthy communities with fewer crime opportunities?
THOUGHTS FOR THE NEXT DECADE
In 2014, Harvard trained economist and statistician Matthew Ranson made a bold prediction:
"Between 2010 and 2099, climate change will cause an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 cases of rape, 1.2 million aggravated assaults, 2.3 million simple assaults, 260,000 robberies, 1.3 million burglaries, 2.2 million cases of larceny, and 580,000 cases of vehicle theft in the United States."
Sobering words as we begin a new year!
And yet, as we have seen over the past few years, there are solutions at hand if we choose to adopt them. Collectively we can find effective answers to both halt the progression of global warming and to address community safety challenges that may be associated with the temperature effect.
by Gregory Saville
I just watched the latest TV reality cop show. There are now almost 50 such programs on television screens around the developed world, most jumping on the bandwagon of the successful Cops program from 1989 ("what you gonna do when they come for you"?).
To those of us living in the active-shooter-killing-field that is modern America, it’s tempting to see cop reality shows as, well…reality. This is especially so considering the horrific news of 32 innocents fatally shot by domestic white terrorists over the past week in Texas, Ohio and California. Cop reality shows must be real! Right?
But the truth about cop reality shows is quite different and to those working to reduce crime in the long term, they don’t do us any favors. Distortions of the truth are never the truth.
Reality shows have become to television what professional wrestling is to martial arts: entertaining, absurd, filled with predictable characters and laden with inevitable storylines. We all know it’s fake – or at least half-true – but it’s like when you see that copy of some trashy grocery store tabloid: you know Queen Elisabeth did not tell Prince Charles to dance naked holding a cup of tea in the lobby of Buckingham Palace. Yet it’s just gross and gratuitous enough to attract us in a comic-book fake way that we just can’t resist.
REALITY THAT ISN'T REAL
The cop version of those reality shows are the silliest. True, they show real people and the tragedies in their lives, but they show us only the worst moments. (To be fair, the higher quality shows state exactly that).
Unfortunately what they don’t state is that we see little of what led up to the events on screen and nothing whatsoever of what will happen afterward.
They show no dull driving on routine patrol. No waiting for calls. And certainly no paperwork – the common-place drudgery that occupies the real cop’s life and takes up far more time than the TV snippets on screen. In other words, reality shows present far less than the real story of real police work. They show a snapshot.
We don’t even get the before/after story about the officers whom the cameras follow. We know nothing of their life, the emotional impact of those calls on their families, or even what they do after their shift (where many of the real stories unfold). While the stories of the victims and suspects in the show might be an uninvited open book, the behind-the-scenes police stories are too personal and verboten to the producers. It is not that they should be included! It is more that because they are not, the real “reality” is hidden.
But these shows have a much more insidious impact on the crime prevention story.
Reality TV producers say nothing about the long-term crime and safety in the neighborhoods in their programs, because they don’t really care about that. Has life worsened for people in those places? The officers respond, arrest, and patrol and, while the impact of such strategies is clear to criminologists (they don’t work), that evidence isn’t part of their TV reality.
If the evidence was somehow included about the truth of crime in modern-day America (and many other developed countries), it would appear as it actually is - in a steep decline.
Cops reality shows reveal moments of tragedy and crisis because, frankly, that’s what brings viewers to advertisers.
That’s not reality. It’s commerce.