Prominent Sociologist Spotlights Community Organizations’ Role in Crime Reduction

America’s cities overall have experienced a remarkable decline in crime that began in the 1990s and that has brought improvements in civic life in some surprising ways.

But the strategies that played a significant part in reducing crime – including stop and frisk policing and mass incarceration – are fading, and different approaches are needed to sustain safety improvements.

And the strategies that should be pursued include building up the number and resources of community organizations that serve in many different ways to increase the quality of life in neighborhoods and doing as much as possible to encourage residents to take roles in helping that quality of life.

A leading figure in American thinking on how to improve the quality of life in urban areas presented that provocative perspective at a conference at Eckstein Hall on Wednesday. Patrick Sharkey, a professor of sociology at New York University, told an audience including leaders of many Milwaukee non-profit organizations that research and data back-up his assertion that such organizations are valuable. There is “really strong evidence” to show the value of community organizations, he said.

Sharkey’s new book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, has gotten considerable attention nationwide, including pieces in the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine. Sharkey was making his second visit to Marquette Law School, having appeared at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program in April 2016.

“Most cities are no longer dangerous,” Sharkey said, an assertion that probably surprises many people, even those living in cities. But the decline is shown clearly in statistics. It has triggered benefits such as average longer life spans for African American men and improvements in education outcomes. Civic life has flourished in many places.

Milwaukee has not seen crime declines to the same degree as some cities, such as New York, Sharkey said, but statistics have improved for Milwaukee and there is evidence of the benefit that brings. Sharkey also praised some of the organizations he learned about in his 2016 visit and that were part of his current visit. He also said he it was encouraging to see how much interest there is in community organizations doing more. The session Wednesday, presented as part of the Milwaukee Area Project of Marquette University Law School’s Lubar Center on Public Policy and Civic Education, was in itself  encouraging, Sharkey said.

Sharkey said that during his 2016 visit to Milwaukee, he toured parts of the city. In some places, he said he could see that there residents who were engaged in the work that enhances the quality of a neighborhood’s life. But in other places, the opposite was clear. He said block clubs and the presence on a block of someone or several people who function as “quarterbacks” who get people involved in community life is a valuable. He encouraged efforts to promote such “quarterbacking.”

He said the nationwide reduction in crime appears to have multiple causes, ranging from get-tough crime fighting to the increasing use of surveillance cameras and private security guards to the work of community groups and caring citizens.

A crucial question is what will arise as the get-tough model of crime fighting fades, Sharkey said. He pointed to possibilities such as an innovation in New York City called “neighborhood-stat.” The practice called “crime-stat” was used widely by urban police departments in recent years (including in Milwaukee). It was built on intensive use of data to pinpoint where to target policing. Neighborhood-stat involves a broader array of parties. Still using data, police work closely with other agencies and organizations in a city to spot problems and areas that need attention. Multiple parties join in strategies to solve problems. Sharkey said he is encouraged by what he has seen in early results.

While increasing services to communities and building involvement from the grassroots level is valuable, Skarkey ended his remarks by emphasizing the importance of safety in any neighborhood. “Violence is the fundamental problem of cities,” he said. “Nothing else can happen if a neighborhood is not safe.” He said living in a violent and crime-filled climate has major negative impacts on residents, and violence underlies disparities in racial opportunities and economic success. “Violence is actually the crucial question, the fundamental question, for understanding inequality,” Sharkey said.

The morning-long conference included two panel discussions involving prominent Milwaukee community leaders.

Participants In one session, “How Community Organizations Can Help Reduce Crime and Improve Neighborhoods” were Michele Bria, executive director of Journey House; Andre Lee Ellis, founder of an organization called We Got This; Sister Patricia Rogers, executive director of the Dominican Center for Women; and Katie Sanders, executive director of Safe and Sound.

The second panel, “How Sustained Investments Can Help Reduce Crime and Improve Neighborhoods,” included Ivan Gamboa, senior vice president of Tri City National Bank; Susan Lloyd, executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation; Keith Stanley, executive director of Near West Side Partners; and Donsia Strong Hill, executive director of LISC-Milwaukee.

To watch a video of the conference, click here. Sharkey is interviewed by Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy at the Law School, in roughly the first hour of the video and again in the last 15 minutes. The panel discussion on reducing crime is generally during the second hour and the panel on investing in reducing crime is generally during the third hour.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel news story on the conference may be read by clicking here.  

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