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Intersection of Andrew & Wilmont…

City Council Chamber before meeting (WMassP&I)
Days after at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera offered his cynically and politically worded resolve before the Springfield City Council and Ward 3 Council Melvin Edwards slapped him down with a rhetorical stroke that summoned a cheer from the audience, irony struck.  In the period of less than a week, the city clocked in two homicides in as many days bringing a deadly total for the summer and pushing the city perilous close to a recent high in annual homicides.  Troubling still is that both victims, appear, according to press accounts, to be innocent bystanders.

Jonathon Tallaj was killed on Wilmont Street in the city’s Forest Park neighborhood, a street that has had a particularly troubled history over the years.  Meanwhile not far away Kevin Gomez was murdered at a party on the one year anniversary of the murder of Cathedral student Conor Reynolds.  Another youth died from a gunshot wound on Washington Street this summer.  The murders frame, to some extent the roughest parts of Forest Park, vaguely defined by Belmont and Dickinson to the West, White Street to the East, Orange Street to the North and either Washington or Fountain Street to the South.

The city’s other recent homicide victim, Carmen Melendez, 16, was killed on Andrew and State street seemingly the victim of a stray bullet.  She died near where the all too ironically named Sheldon Innocent was murdered by an escaped convict whose rampage included other victims, including cops, that survived their injuries.  All but three of the fifteen victims this year, have been under 40 and most were under 30.

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
It would seem that after the most recent barrage of gunfire that Ferrera was right and that more overtime and more money is automatically the answer.  The police need to get tougher and offer a display of force, some may say.  Such decisions can certainly be made after the council returns from its huddle with the mayor and police commissioner, the only tangible demand left credible from Ferrera’s resolve after Edwards slapped his colleague down.

If the council, the mayor and Commission William Fitchet divine any insight from such a meeting, if it ever happens, we should hope knee-jerk reactions or the throwing money is not the result.  The answer to the city’s crime problem will not, in itself, be more cops on the street or more overtime available to the police department.  It will not be more gunshot detection technology or cameras downtown alone.  The problems are simply to complicated to be solved with such glib answers.

As Edwards somewhat wryly put it last week, he could kill his wife in the privacy of his own home regardless of the number of cops on the street.  Likewise, is there anything that more police would have done to prevent the most recent back to back killings?  It is possible that were more police on the street or riding in a patrol car, their mere presence might have stopped the perpetrators from pulling the trigger.  However, that may have only delayed the bullets by minutes and different victims may or may not have been come to be.  As for the victims with known histories of drugs or violence, if their killers were determined not even the best policing the world could stop them.

There is no doubt that the police are a critical component of solving the city’s crime problem.  There needs to be more engagement between residents and the police.  That’s a two way street on the part of both parties.  However, laying much of the responsibility before the police department or policing generally may do little, but offer some security theater right here in Springfield.  Residents can be reassured by statistics that show investment in the police department is up coupled with a more visible police force (probably in the least dangerous neighborhoods).  Meanwhile politicians can be rewarded by a (falsely) reassured voting public and by a police department whose members’ support can make or break a candidacy.

But to actually reduce the crime in the city and thereby make it more attractive to businesses and investors, more than such visual displays of civic action must occur.  First and foremost, the city’s crime problem needs to be put into perspective by city officials and by the media.  Not to minimize the death and terror that haunts the streets of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, but frankly murder is not the city’s biggest problem, a detail often overlooked by “Most Dangerous City” rankings that scream from this publication or another.  Robberies and assaults, generally, do more to harm the city’s image in the eyes of potential investors because those more directly translate into costs for insurance and the like.
Baltimore’s Crime is Far Worse than Springfield (Image: Wikipedia)
Additionally, these statistics that sound the alarm on the city’s dangerousness weigh many crimes equally.  According to CLR Research a real estate firm (Admitted: we have no way to test their data’s reliability, but it appears accurate), Springfield’s problems are high by some measures.  However, the risk of most “dangerous” crimes in 2010, including homicides was lower in Springfield than Hartford, New Haven, Lowell even Worcester.  However, the figure that grabs all the headlines is the city’s homicide rate, which does appear higher than crime generally for a city of Springfield’s size.  However, to offer some perspective Baltimore, a city that normally appears with Springfield on these “dangerous” lists had a relative low of 223 homicides in 2010.  For Springfield to have that rate it would need to clock in 55 homicides in a year more than triple last year’s rate and near so even based on this year’s projected higher rate.

The city council and the mayor, whoever they may be now and in the future, also need to actually educate themselves and each other about where the problems are and for that matter how the police department actually works.  What is most bothersome of Ferrera’s resolve, which it is important to note was originally cosponsored with at-large Councilor Tim Rooke, is that it was divorced from reality.  The city’s police overtime budget was untouched by the city council.  However, the overtime budget is almost always one of the most reliable sources of unused budget funds at the end of the fiscal year.  With the tornado occurring in Springfield so close to the end of the fiscal year, it will be difficult to quantify for FY11, but projections for a surplus made prior to the storm likely counted on unused money coming from police overtime. 

Councilor Concepcion (the Reminder)
Councilors and, to some extent, residents need to put their fears into perspective.  To illustrate, Ward 5 Clodo Concepcion, blurted out an alarmed “We’re scared,” in offering his unconditional support to Ferrera’s overtime resolve.  Although one murder this year has occurred within the very edge of Concepcion’s district, the alarm behind his statement probably echoed a fear many of his constituents share even though to risk to them is statistically insignificant.  Pacifying that fear would likely mean more patrols through peaceful neighborhoods than violent ones.

Meanwhile, it was Edwards and Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera, both of whose districts have sustained three murders that urged a more thoughtful and deliberative approach.  Indeed it would be those wards (in specific parts of Ward 6, however), in addition to wards 1 and 4 that need more attention from police assuming homicides are indicative of the prevalence of other crime and that police attention is, indeed the solution.  For the record Ward 1 appears to have two murders, Ward 4 has four while wards 8 and 2 have 1 each.  Ward 7 has had none.  This is based on approximating this year’s murder locations against the ward map, but some deaths were literally on the boundaries of wards.

The reality, is however, that some crimes and tragedies may be avoided by means other than focus on the police department alone.  More rigorous code enforcement might have kept closed the infamous lounge where Conor Reynolds was killed.  Better housing policies may help to dilute the concentration of poverty in parts of the city, which has led to slums where violence, turf wars and drugs mix together to form a potentially explosive situation.
Mural in City Hall (WMassP&I)
In addition better economic development policy and a reassessment of the city’s status as the social service epicenter of Western Massachusetts could improve the root cause of much crime: poverty.  Other changes like CORI and education law on the state level and drug and gun laws on the federal level could also help, but obviously that is out of 36 Court Street’s hands.

If there is one overarching point in assessing this situation it may be very simple even it chastises oversimplification.  Crime in Springfield cannot be bought away or with other simple, visceral and unimaginative solutions.  Like most of the city’s problems it needs intelligent and frank discussions about the cause and status of its ills.  That call goes out not just to the city’s politicians, but to residents of all persuasions, to move past their comfort zones and past excuses, gripes and tired solutions.