At the May 29 City Council meeting, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon became a scapegoat, blamed for the mistakes and crimes of others.
He was pummeled for three hours about perceptions of crime in the city, especially in predominately black areas. The latter point is significant: Talk of crime in St. Petersburg basically means crime south of Central Avenue. Black-on-black crime.
Harmon insisted that the numbers are not lying, that crime is down 10 percent for the first four months of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007. Auto theft is down 44.6 percent, aggravated assault is down 19.2 percent and violent crime overall is down 12.1 percent. The one stubborn stat relates to homicides, with a total of 26 for the city in 2007 and 13 so far this year.
In defense of himself and his department of 520 sworn officers, Harmon said: "The facts are that crime is going down. What we're battling is not the actual crime numbers. It's the perception of crime."
Although Harmon is right, he cannot speak candidly and go beneath the surface of the numbers. If he did, he would be accused of being a racist, and Mayor Rick Baker would be asked to fire his chief.
Harmon cannot say that crime and culture are inextricably tied and that social capital, in fact, is the missing link. The lack of social capital in most low-income black communities, where Harmon is being accused of failing to prevent crime, drives the dysfunction that is responsible for unflattering stats and angry City Council meetings.
Social capital is a concept that refers to positive relations between individuals and networks of people. Positive relations have inherent worth because they enhance appreciation and growth of tangibles such as financial wealth, property values, home ownership, high school diplomas and college degrees, safe streets and environmental aesthetics. In short, neighbors bond, cooperate and spread goodwill for the greater good over the years.
Drive around St. Petersburg and observe. You can distinguish communities with social capital from those without it. Tastefully painted houses, tidy yards, clean sidewalks and trash-free easements suggest that the people here care about their property and, therefore, care about the well-being of all homes in the community. More than likely, the adults here are involved in their children's school.
These residents not only abhor crime in their space, they get involved to prevent crime and perceptions of crime. You will see few, if any, hookers and drug dealers plying their trade openly here. Few people are murdered here, and you rarely hear a gunshot. Who would dare fire a gun where residents would march on City Hall in protest?
Let us face a universal truth: Cops, like everyone else, care about and eagerly protect communities that care about themselves, where social capital is obvious.
A key to social capital is that it gives individuals and groups self-pride. People with self-pride command the respect of others. They even command the respect of cops whose only job is to enforce the law, not to be neighborhood pals.
Harmon cannot say in public that much of Midtown lacks social capital, that much of it is a place where many people, especially young black males, do not care about their neighborhoods. Too many people here refuse to work, taking pride in petty hustling and serious criminal activity.
On the other hand, some people here work hard, obey the law and take care of their homes. But social capital cannot take root. To take root, it needs a critical mass of willing leaders and participants. The hard-core element of criminals destabilizes the effort.
As a result, a culture of crime that disdains the police rules in many black neighborhoods.
Without neighborhood cooperation, the best the police can do is to occupy crime-ridden areas by increasing the number of uniforms and cruisers and implementing strict "broken windows" enforcement.
On this front, police critics have gotten part of their wish. In a recent memo, the department announced that it will bolster its street presence in the Harbordale, Childs Park and Palmetto Park neighborhoods and will clamp down on gun use.
Will this move help? It probably will not. These neighborhoods lack social capital, the things that really count in daily life — goodwill, sympathy, fellowship, civility, respect and communal uplift. It cannot be forced on people. It must be desired, and it must come from the inside. It must come from the concerted efforts of parents, peers, churches, schools and role models. It is guided by people's intelligence and their moral choices.
In time, perhaps the City Council will find a way to speak frankly about crime with Chief Harmon. Meanwhile, the useless grandstanding and finger-pointing will continue, and Harmon will continue to be the scapegoat.