Forget Why

Knowing where crime happens is enough to do something about it

I hated giving this kid rides home, not because I was afraid of his neighborhood—maybe I was a little—but more because after we put him out of the car and drove off, my heart sank, as if we had just left a naked infant alone on an ice floe.

It was so bad—junkies on their backs on the bare dirt; men pissing on walls in broad daylight; fat, nasty drug dealers slouched in big Detroit felony cars with both front doors flung open. I didn't see how a child possibly could survive. But he bounced out of the car.

He was home.

That was six years ago, freshmen football at Woodrow Wilson High School, and my son wanted me to give this kid rides. After that year my son found interests other than football, but the kid from the really bad neighborhood went on to become a football player my whole family loved to watch on the field. He was an unlikely gridiron hero, short and almost scrawny, but he was a wild scrambler, ferociously hungry for the tackle. Desperate for the tackle.

After big games, my wife and I sought him out where he lurked on the edge of the celebrating crowd, alone with helmet in hand, face painted in blood and dirt, somber and tough, staring at his feet. When we told him his tackles were great, he lifted his face and grinned like a 4-year-old.

"I just do my best, sir," he told me one night on the way down Dolphin Road. "I got to. I got to be somebody."

The word from my son at the end of their senior year was that this kid had won a football scholarship to a small college somewhere and would be going on.

He had already been on my mind lately because his neighborhood is the site of a huge redevelopment project combining public housing and new private single-family homes. And then I ran into him. He was busing tables in a restaurant where I met a guy for lunch.

He remembered me and mumbled a few words about how he'd gotten into "a little bit of trouble" and lost the scholarship. I gave him my business card and suggested maybe I could help think of something.

He called that evening. Some kind of mishap, an emergency, and he needed $20. I drove back to the restaurant and gave him $40. He called the next evening. Another mishap, totally unrelated to the first. Needed another $20. I said no.

He called two or three times more. Needed $20. I told him not to call again. I asked someone who had known him in high school if she knew what he was doing. She couldn't be sure but said the word out there was heroin.

Annual crime numbers came out last week showing that for the eighth straight year Dallas has the highest crime rate of cities of a million or more population. Every once in a while, in a fit of masochism, I try to read academic literature on why some young people turn to "deviant lifestyles" and others do not. Last time I gave up on this effort, I had gotten as far as a book called A General Theory of Crime by Travis Hirschi and Michael R. Gottfredson published in 1990. It was the ruling authority at the time.

The book debunks all of the common wisdom (i.e., my wisdom) about root causes. Decades of scientific study by a host of experimenters have shown little or no truth in most of the dearly held beliefs of popular culture about who turns to crime and drugs and why.

If you define crime broadly so that everything is included, the basic tendency of young people to turn toward crime or drug use or other deviant behavior is the same across lines of class, ethnicity and income. The differences happen after they get caught.

The other thing Gottfredson and Hirschi demonstrated was that deviant people have the same motivations for what they do as law-abiding people. They want the same things—money, fame, glory, love, revenge, sex, respect, security, escape from pain. They just want it now. The easy way. They want to smash and grab for it. Hirschi and Gottfredson said the key determining factor in crime is low self-control.

Apparently since I last checked in on them, Hirschi and Gottfredson have been fending off a lot of attacks from other academics. Professor Jeffrey Ackerman in the sociology department at Texas A&M tried to explain to me in an e-mail what the critics have said about A General Theory of Crime: "How do you know that someone has low 'self-control'? Well, they commit crimes, and therefore we know. What is crime 'caused' by? Low self-control."

OK, so there's a certain circularity there. It's what the critics call a tautologytrying to prove something with itself. But Ackerman stressed—and I found this same theme in some of the articles I managed to blunder through last week—that A General Theory of Crime still has one big thing going for it: It provides an extremely "stable" or consistent predictor of criminality.

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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