Crimes' role in both the process and in communities in general is rather significant due to the extent of its presence in today's society. For many, crime is a serious cause for concern and often impacts people's decision to live in certain areas. It's a frequent issue for communities, and many other issues can be affected by criminal activity in the area.
This article will further explore the relationship between community development and crime. Topics will include the impact crime has on society in general and on the community development process. Potential issues that crime can cause in communities and what actions those communities can take through community development to deal with them will also be discussed.
Crime In The United States
Crime is one of the unfortunate inevitabilities in the world, and can happen pretty much anywhere. While there are certain conditions and details that increase the likelihood of some kind of crime occurring, there's also no guarantee that it will happen anywhere either. In the United States, crime rates and criminal activity has long been at topic of discussion, especially in recent years. Particular areas of the country have become areas of interest in the discussion surrounding crime because of the recent increase of violent crime in those areas compared to others, such as with the city of Chicago and its surging homicide rate.1 Conversations about these areas in the last election cycle has raised concerns with the public, and has prompted some to question if they are safe in their own communities.
Contrary to popular belief, crime rates have actually decreased over the last twenty years. The 2016 statistics released by the FBI shows that while there were slight increases in certain types of crime throughout the country-possibly due to pockets of increased violent crime like Chicago's homicides-overall crime rates are lower than previous years.2 There's an abundance of speculation into why the overall crime rate has dropped in recent years, and there isn't any specific reason that has been pinpointed yet. Experts have suggested things like incarceration, geography, changes in laws, demographics, economic practices, leadership-the theories are all over the place.3
So if crime has decreased nationally, why are people continuing to be fearful of potential rises in criminal activity in their communities? There's quite a bit of a discrepancy between the data being collected and the public's perception of the situation.4 Part of it is how it's being talked about and how often, and how people are interpreting the information. The places where there are surges in crime rates are being talked about in such a way that people think that it's happening everywhere rather than just one particular area. Smart phones and social media have actually made it easier for news regarding certain crimes to spread much faster and much farther than they would through conventional means. The idea of 'this is how things are and it's only getting worse' gets into people's minds, and it's hard to convince them otherwise when there's so much that publically agrees with that thought process. It is good old-fashioned fear and human nature at work.
Due to crime being such a significant issue-even with a statistical decrease-and community development's role in combatting issues in communities, the two make a pretty fine match. Unfortunately, there's such a focus on reducing poverty and boosting local economies in community development that crime and public safety matters tend to be an afterthought.5 People tend to overlook the fact that many of the aspects that the community development process addresses have a connection to crime. Community safety and criminal activity can be both a cause and a byproduct of the issues that prompt the community development process. An example would be a community that has a poor economy and a high rate of thefts. New businesses that would prompt economic growth and improvements avoid the area due to the threat of theft and other criminal activities that can hurt business owners. The thefts themselves could be a result of business and jobs in the area, causing people to resort to stealing in order to get the resources (food, clothes, etc.) that they need.
Crime and other issues related to public safety can also act as an obstacle to the improvements made by community development. It's difficult to improve a community's appearance and character if vandalism is destroying things being brought in or repaired in the community for example. Rather than stressing out over the situation, it should be properly addressed. Most development plans need to consider the impact that crime-current and potential-can have on improvement efforts, and solutions to address those factors are often going to be a necessary inclusion. Ignoring community aspects related to crime isn't just going to be problematic later on, it's a sloppy way of planning that can make things unnecessarily difficult.
The relationship between crime and community development isn't just an antagonistic one; it can also be beneficial. Data associated with community crime can be incredibly informative when handled correctly. In looking at geography, high-crime areas in a community are probably going to have other issues that are sustaining the criminal activity occurring there. Information collected from those impacted in those particular areas-residents, law enforcement, and even the perpetrators of the crimes-can alert community leaders to things that they may not be able to learn about elsewhere. It also opens up the lines of communication with those areas, which can make it easier for strategies to be implemented and progress to be monitored.6
What Crime Does To Communities
In order for the community development process to properly address crime and the issues it causes, those leading the process need to understand the effect that crime has on communities. With few exceptions, crime is going to have a decidedly negative effect on a community and its members; bringing people together and taking action against crime is really its only redeeming quality. Every community is going to be different and will have different types and amounts of crime occurring there. Thus there's going to be some variation regarding the impact of crime from community to community. A few of the effects include:
- Reduces Safety-Crime and safety go hand in hand; when one increases, the other typically decreases in response. Higher rates of criminal activity are going to negatively impact safety beyond the action of a crime being committed. People are actually going to feel like they are not safe when they learn a crime has happened in their area. They may take action as a result, and those actions may put themselves and others in danger if they are not careful. This can be especially true when stereotypes and misconceptions about crime are added to the mix.
- Disrupts Order, Creates Chaos-Crime naturally goes against the established social rules, which can prevent things in a community from functioning properly. It's counteractive to how things operate and serious cases can be especially devastating when they occur on a large scale (e.g. violence). Criminal acts have actually been a method of turning the social order upside down for years, and it has historically been a favored tactic of criminal organizations.7 Being able to disrupt the social order of a community is powerful-especially when it's well-executed-and the chaos that comes from it can be an easy way to assume control.
- Impedes Community Collaboration and Trust-Any action that impeded public safety is going to impact the trust present throughout the community. Specifically the trust people have that regarding the things in the community that are supposed to protect them. This could include community leadership and practices, public services like law enforcement, and even trust shared amongst peers. When there is a lack of trust in a community, its ability to collaborate is impeded. People don't necessarily want to work with someone that they don't trust, and the outcome of their collaboration can be impacted.
- Generates Stress-People worry about their safety, the safety of their loved ones, all the time. It's a fairly normal part of life, but it can be problematic when increases in crime cause a person to worry all the time. Safety threats can be especially worrisome and stressful, more so when they hit close to home. Prolonged stress can cause health issues and disrupt a person's life, regardless of what the source is. When something like crime rates cause stress throughout a community, those effects are amplified and can impact the functionality of the community.
- Economic Costs-Crime is expensive and can put a lot of added strain on the local economy. It places a huge financial burden on communities to prevent, combat, and clean-up the aftermath of criminal activity.8 These are things that occupy a pretty significant portion of budgets in communities across the country. There's an entire market dedicated to crime prevention and security alone, which has its own economic implications in society. Economic facets like tourism and business can be especially impacted by crime, as productivity and sales can drop in areas associated with criminal activity.9 This doesn't even necessarily count the personal and non-monetary costs crime has on a community, like pain and suffering.
Addressing Crime In Communities
Acknowledging and understanding crime in communities is different than addressing the situation. Knowing what causes criminal activity and safety threats to occur doesn't actually do anything to prevent such things from happening in a community. Taking action to prevent crime and/or maintain security is going to be the best thing a community can do to keep itself and its members safe. Many of those actions can be implemented through the community development process-which can help pinpoint exactly what is needed and where. Some of the measures that a community can take to address crime can include:
- Neighborhood Watch Programs-Watch programs of any kind are a fairly easy and inexpensive crime-fighting tactic for communities. They usually don't need any formal approval from local leadership or officials, and can be implemented pretty much anywhere. A community seeking to set up a neighborhood watch program needs to have cohesion and communication amongst its members.10 Resources, including educational materials, for starting a neighborhood watch group can be obtained through local law enforcement or the National Neighborhood Watch Institute.11
- Environmental Improvements-Certain things in a community's environment can deter or encourage crime. Changing these aspects of a community's environment, when possible, can impact how crime develops. For example, areas that have poor visibility or are unmonitored are going to make it easier for criminal activities to occur. The inclusion of things like lights, patrols, and security cameras can act as deterrents because they attract attention to those areas.12 In some cases, signs or notices about surveillance can function in the same way. There is no guarantee that any environmental improvements will get rid of crime completely, but it can make a difference.
- Law Enforcement-When it's an option, having trained personnel in the community whose purpose is to enforce safety can really help prevent crime and maintain security. Law enforcement officers have the education and resources to properly handle the different aspects of crime in the community, and they can be really efficient when there's effective management guiding them. When formal law enforcement isn't available, many community watch programs will act in a similar role.
- Natural Disaster Preparedness-Natural disasters can be very chaotic events for a community, and they can prompt a variety of crimes. Looting is a fairly common issue for communities after a natural disaster hits, and it's not always a result of people in desperate need of survivable resources.13 Preparing for natural disasters-whether it's educating residents about scams or implementing new procedures-can help reduce crimes associated with them. For communities that are located in disaster-prone areas, this may need to be thoroughly addressed in the community development process.