The Outstater: Paddling Toward Ferguson

October 27, 2014

For the use of the membership only.

“I’m drowning, and you’re describing the water,” says the troubled Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in exasperation at some well-meant but useless advice. — “As Good as It Gets,” directed by James L. Brooks.

AS MEMBERS OF A GREAT SOCIETY led by the smartest people, we have been humbled by the realization that we cannot protect ourselves from a deadly disease because we might offend the sensitivities of the disease inflicters. There’s small hope, then, that anything truly complex like crime or urban blight can ever be solved.

Yet, in the spirit of Melvin Udall, let’s give it a try. Let’s keep paddling.

Faced with any daunting problem, it’s always a time-saver to pick up the Indianapolis Star. Their chief columnist, a prolific writer, erudite in the Starbucks fashion, thinks so reflexively with his heart that whatever position he takes on a serious policy question is sure to fail. That is precious time saved, and, as luck would have it, he has addressed our very issue. It is in his recent column titled “Riggs Takes New Approach to Tackling Crime in Indy.”

Tory Riggs is the city’s public-safety director. Our columnist seems to think Riggs is the man to save Indianapolis from a Ferguson-like incident. You can be sure, therefore, that he’s not that man. And applying reverse logic to the Star’s interview, plus an ability to hear the liberal dog whistle after years in Democrat newsrooms, we can derive the correct policy by deduction:

The Intractability of Urbanity — “I hear people say that the city’s problems are too big to solve,” (the director) said. “Well, in eight square miles they’re not too big to solve.” Part of the challenge, he said, is that, “Everyone wants this one thing we can do to make these problems all go away. But there isn’t one thing. It’s about rolling up our sleeves and working hard for a long time.”

The “problems” (people stealing and hurting one another) need to be addressed immediately and continually. A tough job, certainly, and we can appreciate why a public-safety director might rather position himself atop a political system perpetually transferring money from one group to another without design, effect or accountability. But there in fact is “one thing” he is obligated to do, with or without rolled-up sleeves. That is to enforce the law and protect the citizenry, and on a schedule quite a bit tighter than “working hard for a long time.” He is the chief law-enforcement officer of a modestly sized Midwest city, not a philosopher.

Holistic Crime Fighting — “It is looking at school suspension and expulsion rates in neighborhoods, understanding that they are tied to crime and need to be met head-on with mentors, tutors and safe programs for teens. It is seeking to reduce crime by better addressing mental-health and addiction issues, guiding people not only to jail, but also to counseling and other sources of help. Police runs related to mental-health issues consume tremendous resources in Indianapolis, so if the city can increase the percentage of people who receive needed mental-health and addiction services, the reduced strain on police and taxpayers will be tremendous.”

We can safely reject the tired 1980s narrative that each 911 call is the culmination of hundreds, perhaps thousands of societal failures, all the result of altruistic but underfunded socio-governmental agencies. For after more than four decades of the Great Society and 20 trillion(!) dollars spent, we know just this: It is reasonable to ask people in even the most troubled economic conditions to decide whether they want to live in a default setting mired in dependency, dysfunction and crime or whether they want to make themselves exceptional by taking daily responsibility for their families, neighborhoods, behavior and choices.

The Zen of Government — “There has to be a philosophical change in the way we do government,” (the director) said. “Data has changed everything in life, from how we enjoy sports to how businesses are run, but it hasn’t changed government.” But it can, he said, because good data gives officers and others a better understanding of the core issues facing a city and its neighborhoods, and it offers better guidance on how to address those problems.

There he goes again, philosophizing. Yes, we need a change, but in the opposite direction. Perhaps after spending $15 million on a new data system, the director is merely engaging in some defensive bibble-babble. At best, his new data trove will describe the water in which his citizenry is drowning. At worst, he might actually believe that laws should be applied — adjusted — to fit a demographic detail.

In any case, the way to avoid civic disaster is to do the opposite, and in this case that is to treat each law-enforcement contact as a citizen with rights and responsibilities (aligned, one can hope, with Western Civilization). We do not want to end up as ciphers loaded onto police smartphones in some dystopian novel.

With that, we rest and await the Star’s heartfelt advice on Ebola.

— Craig Ladwig



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