Forget Why

Knowing where crime happens is enough to do something about it

Children who can't control their impulses may commit crimes. If they live in an environment where nothing effective is done to help them learn self-control or where lack of self-control is the norm, they will commit more crimes. If they get beyond the age where they can change their stripes and still have no self-control, they will continue to commit crimes until they get too old and tired for crime.

Last week when the crime stats came out, I saw a city councilman from southern Dallas quoted as saying we need job training programs for recently released offenders. It's the kind of idea that makes sense if you believe that crime is a logical career choice. I always think of a story I heard from a lady I know who's in prison for life in Alabama.

She told me how the inmates in her prison have to stand out in the cold rain waiting to get into geography class. They're not allowed into geography until they form an orderly line, but they poke and jostle too much. They can never form an orderly line, so they never get in out of the rain.

"Most of these people would be so much better off," she said, "if the prison would forget geography and just teach them how to stand in line."

Self-control is kind of a puzzle, isn't it? If you are the master of yourself, which one are you? The master or the self? If you are only self, can you be civilized? I have always suspected that somewhere this all comes down to moral choice. Then again, what do I know?

Ackerman said in his e-mail he wasn't sure it's always useful to talk about root causes. "I've always found it easier to talk about crime to my students in terms of risk and protective factors rather than root causes."

Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle told me almost the same thing, I think, when I tried to get him to talk about root causes of crime last week. Why worry about causes, he suggested, if you know the conditions and can change them?

"I would argue that a kid growing up and going to J.W. Ray Elementary School near Lemmon and Central and growing up in Roseland Homes public housing stands a much better chance of having a better life than a kid growing up in the most desperate areas of South Dallas."

Last week the Foundation for Community Empowerment published a report on "disparity" in the city of Dallas—a study of just how different life is in some parts of the city than in others. It's fascinating and in some ways shocking. You can see it at www.fce-dallas.org.

I talked to Dr. Marcus Martin, director of research for the FCE, who dropped what I thought were a couple of especially devastating numbers: "When we looked at homicides in the city of Dallas," he said, "the thing that struck me was that there are more homicides in any given year than car fatalities.

"The other thing is that we looked at two years of data from '02 to '04. Of 450 homicide victims, less than 10 were college graduates."

A city of socio-economic niches. Grow up in one and prosper. Grow up in another and die. Or take heroin.

He also told me the foundation's research shows that the Dallas area has the fourth-highest income level for black people in the country. We talked a little about the fact that some affluent suburbs have become very diverse now that more upwardly mobile African-Americans and Latinos have moved up and out of the city (or in from other parts of the country).

But what about that kid I kept putting out of my car at the gates of hell half a dozen years ago? I drove down Dolphin Road last week, across Interstate 30 and south from Samuell-Grand Park, past the new Frazier Fellowship housing units still under construction and a sea of concrete pads across the street where new single-family homes will be.

The apartment complex where he lived is a third of a mile on down where Dolphin Road becomes Hatcher Street. It traded hands three years ago. I pulled up and gazed. Someone has cleaned it up. A lot. Grass grows, neatly trimmed. A high wrought-iron fence separates the tidy confines from an angry sea of chaos without.

Maybe that was all he needed. He already had so much courage, such a furious determination in those balled fists holding the battered helmet. Maybe all he needed was some paint on his home, a bit of grass, a fence. Enough to make him think he counted.

I see us doing it. I see it happening up and down Dolphin Road and Hatcher Street. Very gradually. It's the right thing. Too late for him.

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