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“Crime is inversely proportional to social cohesion.” This statement, by Thomas Alt of the U.S. Department of Justice, makes perfect sense. It is the culture of a society, a community, or an organization – not the number and strictness of its rules – that ultimately defines personal respect and integrity among its members.
For too long, we’ve coasted in a mind-set that thinks of violence as someone else’s problem and as someone else’s responsibility. But police and correctional officers (as much as we need them) cannot stop violence on their own. When it comes to counteracting violence, we make little progress by treating the symptom while ignoring the root causes.
It really does take a village to raise a child. But too often it takes a tragedy to wake up the village and make us see that too many of our children are struggling. In Albany, 10-year old Kathina Thomas was killed by a stray bullet fired by a 15-year-old boy using what he termed a “community gun.” In Schenectady, four high school girls committed suicide within the space of five months. In both communities, broad community coalitions formed to address the root causes behind these disturbing events. While the underlying causes may appear intractable, there is new hope that community members working together can make a difference.
A community that does not commit itself to defending the dignity and rights of each of its members is a community in name only. Thus, the pursuit of public safety should be a community-building process that engages all stakeholder groups (members of law enforcement, crime victims and their families, incarcerated people and their families, mental health advocates, teachers, social workers, policy makers, and community members at large) in their common desire to protect human beings and human values where threatened by violence, injustice, and/or institutional indifference and neglect.
When it comes to building safer communities, the process really is the product. Values of tolerance, inclusiveness, respect and good will must be embedded not only in the desired outcomes but also in the means for achieving them. Optimal responses should generate healing and empowerment for victims of violence, and also provide opportunities for those who have inflicted harm to gain self awareness and to take responsibility for their actions.
Violence challenges a community’s core values, affecting each of us in one way or another. It can’t be solved with most of us sitting on the sidelines.