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what if

January 26, 2011

I was watching the news the other night. They had a story about a program in Oakland– and San Jose too, I think– which deploys “community outreach” officers onto the streets, in an effort to build relationships with people and curb crime.

I’m not really sure how it works; I tried to follow it up, but so far I haven’t been able to find much information. I’m not sure what kind of “relationships” they build, or what they have to offer. They did say, emphatically, that the program is supported by the police, but that the outreach officers under no circumstances share information with or tip off the police. This was understood by everyone involved; in communities where that barrier has been breached, the programs have failed.

It sounds enormously high risk for those involved. The people they interviewed in that brief segment knew this. They had some kind of hope for their community which impelled them– perhaps they had grown up in a particular neighborhood, or had been in prison themselves. It just made me wonder.

What if? What if we had something like that here? What if, besides “neighborhood watch” councils, or “community officers” who drive around looking for dry lawns and your poor little boat parked in your driveway, besides Facebook groups to “Take Back Antioch,” we expended some effort on finding out what people need, or forming some kind of connection with each other?

Well, I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know how it works. And to tell you the truth, I’m defensive myself. I don’t like to be made afraid, and invasive, violent crime makes me afraid. But maybe there are other ways to lessen the fear, besides closing ranks.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Cecil permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:29 AM

    Once I read what you wrote, I briefly did a search on “community outreach officer” and came up with a hodgepodge of different duties assigned to such officers all over the country. There aren’t many specifics when it comes to the overall concept of police community outreach, other than better public relations for the police department.

    In places where there is a decent sense of community, it would seem that crime would not be a major problem, although “sense of community” is probably impossible to measure. To my mind, community encompasses residents’ social, economic, cultural, and political needs. When any one of these elements becomes problematic, then the sense of community is negatively affected. That seems more true today than at any time in the past.

    I assume things are in pretty bad shape in Antioch, from what you have said in the past. If the police department has to turn to community outreach and community policing, that seems indicative of a serious breakdown of trust between law enforcement and residents.

    A central part of the problem seems to me, that people aren’t as willing today to turn to one another for help when they need it. They increasingly expect the police, and more broadly, the government, to handle what in times past churches, volunteer and civic organizations, and citizens themselves did. Not to say that government assistance is always bad (lest you think I’ve gone to the dark side and joined the Tea Party), but when the government has to step in, there is a failure of society. This happened during the Depression. But to get back to my point, people seem averse to dealing with their neighbors anymore. I saw it regularly when I lived in rural Massachusetts (though they seem to have a long-standing tradition of aloofness from neighbors), and I see it daily here in Kentucky, with the drug problem escalating out of control (meth and prescription pills). And the latest response to the recession, poverty, and drugs – the state legislature is getting ready to pass a bill that would require drug tests of recipients of government aid. It has broad public approval. The legislature is also “debating” an Arizona-style immigration bill, which will pass, making it legal to harass Latinos and Hispanics, who happen to make up a sizeable portion of the local manual farm labor market here.

    Under these conditions, I don’t know how to get any sense of community back, apart from “neighborhood watch” associations and the gatherings of soccer moms. If I didn’t have a deep sense of the absurd, I’d be pretty despairing about it all.

    • libbiali permalink
      January 28, 2011 11:23 PM

      Thanks Cecil. That brings in so many threads, around such a central issue; I agree completely about the very dark side of government, what Dorothy Day would call reliance on “Holy Mother The State” to do what people should do person to person. We really have created a society where people are positively discouraged, even ridiculed, for doing things in this way.

      One example I always think of– I hope I haven’t used it before– was from a ministry class I took, where the instructor was a priest– a Franciscan priest– and a psychologist. He was talking about a church in the City where homeless people had taken to sheltering during the days, even sometimes sleeping in the pews. The church staff, etc. were upset about this, and they went and found a social worker to talk to “these people” for them. He actually presented this as a positive instance of how the so-called “helping professions” could be used as intermediaries or something. I really thought my head would explode. These are people IN A CHURCH who are too afraid/repelled/lazy/I don’t-know-what to walk out of the office and talk to people in need IN THEIR CHURCH?

      So I guess my point is, there’s always some expert/official way to avoid opening any conversation directly; to keep it at arm’s length. And I’m not totally sure how these “outreach personnel” function, or who people perceive them as representing, only that they themselves seemed to understand it as a personal offering. It was quite different from any of the “neighborhood watch” or “coffee-with-the-cops” kinds of endeavors that the police department co-operates with here, and which are almost always based on us vs. not-us. I mean, I always wonder what it would be like if the guy with the cardboard sign on the freeway exit showed up some morning at coffee with the cops!

      I heard about the pending Kentucky law– on Facebook, from young people with two-bit jobs they could lose any day, trumpeting their wholehearted support. It simply astonishes me. Do they sit in school for twelve years and not absorb anything of what I would consider fundamental American values about the rights of the human person? It seems that if there’s a knee-jerk chance to stick it to “them,” they’ll go for it every time, no matter what the cost. It is truly absurd, how ready people are to live in a police state, comfortably assuming they will always be the special friends of the police.

      • Cecil permalink
        January 31, 2011 9:34 PM

        I’ve noticed a couple of things about efforts to help the poor and the addicted in this area. One, the most active religious social welfare organization is Christian Social Services, which was started by local Catholics in the 1970s. Local Protestant churches have little community outreach beyond their evangelical efforts and collecting food baskets at Thanksgiving and sponsoring angel trees at Christmas. For most of them, poor and addicted = lazy and untouchable. “You could work if you wanted to,” or “You do drugs because you want to.” And they wonder why poor people don’t go to church. So there’s a whole structural impediment to helping people on the local level by way of churches. The only other church that I know of which does anything is a relatively new Pentecostal church that helps to distribute government commodities a la’ the Bush II-era faith-based initiative.

        Second, every one I know that works in local social service agencies is burned out. The local need is simply too great for understaffed local agencies to help, and in many cases those working hold the prejudices I described above. My best friend works in a drug reb for teenage boys, and I can see it taking its toll on him. He can barely communicate with most of these young men, the generational differences are so great. And what can you do with a poor, uneducated teenage boy from either the inner city or from the backwater, unless you somehow help them rebuild their lives from the ground up, with wholly new friends and opportunities for education and work? I’m not saying it can’t be done, or that there is no hope, but it is very difficult, and the social will to help isn’t there.

        Late this last year, there was a public meeting of the local drug task force (combined local police, state police, and DEA) in the wake of the death of high school student due to an OD. They encouraged the 300 or so people present to inform on any drug activity they were aware of and promised that something would be done. There were a few arrests, which was good (including the people who sold the pills to the high school student), but to me there was much wrong with the picture. This was obviously no community-building exercise. The local drug problem is very decentralized, and there is no single set of arrests or busts that will take care of it. The drug problem, poverty, and lack of decent-paying work are all intertwined, but no one sees that or wants to acknowledge it or deal with it. As I said, you are blamed for not being able to find work.

        I guess what I’m getting at is how these lines of thinking are ultimately self-destructive. The current forms taken by “American values,” evangelicalism, self-interested individualism, and the “law and order” attitude (i.e. acceptance of the police state) of the majority are creating more problems than they are solving. They are easily driving wedges between neighbors who might otherwise help each other out. They perpetuate the delusions that poverty and drug addiction are individual problems, not failures of society. I guess Margaret Thatcher was ultimately right – “society does not exist.” People are working really hard to make sure that it doesn’t.

        • libbiali permalink
          February 3, 2011 10:30 PM

          On some level, I guess I’m with Margaret Thatcher– ultimately it really is about every individual human person. Though I don’t think we necessarily go to the same place with it. But I do believe that the individual is the unit of value; everything else exists to support it. When it’s “society” that needs protecting at the individual’s expense… mmm, you know…

          But I guess it seems to me like the “individualism” we see right now has it backwards, most of the time– it’s the individual’s “responsibility” to expend itself driving the national/corporate juggernaut. There is less and less room–or respect for– any kind of variation in life choices, and I think that is one reason the generational gulf, as you say, has become so wide. Anyone who is an adolescent or young adult now has grown up in the post-Reagan era, where the gap between those who are plugged into the mainstream, and those who are not, has become gargantuan. So much so that we may wake up one morning soon and find that the mainstream has shifted its bed, if you know what I mean.

          The attitudes you speak of prevail here too– no surprise. The school district was giving a course to teachers for a couple of years on the “causes of poverty.” Complete with a certificate. The upshot? poor people are lazy and no-good. Now, I know people can have some appalling habits, I’ve been around the block, but this was just… contemptuous. When poverty itself is criminalized– which is what has happened here, to a large extent– it’s very hard to filter out and focus on actual crime. And as you say, it’s counter-productive, in the end– people just get so angry and alienated that it’s very hard to connect on any level. The powers-that-be around here have promoted this kind of thing for so long, I’m not sure how it can be redirected anymore.

          So, churches aren’t the answer, any more that the state is the answer– it’s the people in the churches who should be the answer. And sometimes they are! I’ve seen unbelievable acts of personal charity over the past few years, that have made a huge difference– I’m not talking about money, either. But it’s very hard for anyone who’s not leading a regular middle-class family life to find any kind of place in them, for the most part, or any real acceptance. The more involved I became, the more I saw this… and now I’m marginalized enough to feel it myself. Underneath all the proclaiming and smugness and self-congratulation is a real dynamic of fear.

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