Beyond Crime and Punishment


Every politician, pundit and other apparatchik should have heard the elderly lady who didn’t even say a word about politics during my encounter with her on the streets of Manhattan.

They should have heard because she nonetheless gave me a crystal-clear insight on why the Democrats are sweating the midterm elections.

I didn’t get her name, and will likely never see her again, so I’ll report the exchange here and let all do as they might with the tale.

There is much to do, too, as Republicans smell weakness in their Democratic opposition. This has led to Republican candidates crafting exaggerations about crime in American cities in practiced tones intended to disturb the rhythms of life from socially solid city blocks to suburban centers of the safety-conscious.

We’ll see how that works out as Democrats remain tone-deaf. They too often offer retorts on crime right out of academia. Too many of them mistakenly question the fuss with a dismissiveness that relies on the alchemy of statistics to concoct whatever technically honest mistruths might be necessary for some casual campaign casuistry.

The old lady cut through all that when she stopped me on the street in Midtown, slightly stooped against a chill wind, cane in one hand and a piece of note paper flapping in the other. She tried me in Spanish, figured out that my skills with the language were subpar, and switched to her thickly accented English. She had a street address and some directions but was baffled—it turned out someone had told her the spot was between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue when it actually was between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue.

I had some time, so I took a look at the address and figured out where she should be going. I was heading in that direction, so I asked her if she’d like me to accompany her to the address.

She said she’d appreciate it, and we chatted as we walked a block and a half or so. Where are you from? “Puerto Rico.” But where in New York? “The Westside—and I never come over here.”

She said she was looking for a medical facility of some sort, and I wished her well on whatever ailed her.

That’s when she told the story that Democrats should hear and understand. This lady had been sent as an emissary of her Roman Catholic parish on the Westside, a community of faith that had taken note that one among them had gone missing.

They checked their fellow parishioner’s apartment and links of friends and family. He apparently counted on the parish itself for the former and didn’t have much of the latter.
Someone finally tracked this fellow to a nursing home across town. That was the lead this lady was running down.

Then she mentioned one more thing that brought to light the insight on public safety: Word on the street back on the Westside said that this fellow had witnessed some crime, and the perpetrator knew. The fellow feared reprisal from the criminal and quit the neighborhood, checking into a nursing home to hide.

I suppose this lady could have made all this up, but I don’t think so. And I don’t know the specifics of the matter, but I have sufficient experience as a resident of inner-city neighborhoods and as a community journalist to make some deductions, draw some inferences—or assumptions—and offer some postulates that Democrats, Republicans, members of the media, ideologues, academics and anyone else truly interested in the lives and health of our cities might consider.

There’s a fair chance that the crime this fellow witnessed went unreported. That’s what happens when witnesses—AKA law-abiding community members—lose faith in public safety. An unreported crime plays back into the alchemy of statistics, by the way, uncaptured and therefore unanalyzed.

The decision not to report fouls the data analysis—it becomes a second-order effect of crime that isn’t sufficiently considered in the maelstrom of politics by the cable TV hosts, talk radio yakkers and social media mavens.

It goes on, too, when you consider the cost to this would-be witness, who uproots himself from a settled community. And the cost to both his community of faith—which loses a member, perhaps a volunteer, and a likely financial supporter—and the larger neighborhood. After all, it’s a safe bet that any person who inspires the sort of search the old lady undertook is someone who brings an overall positive effect to society.

Also consider the costs of keeping this fellow in a nursing home versus his living on his own. Perhaps the guy is a billionaire—but let’s be real and figure that whatever he did to gain refuge in the facility is likely leading to greater costs to taxpayers through Medicare or other publicly subsidized program.

Finally, and most intangibly, consider the cost to society when we concede that some folks who have obviously put in the sort of work it takes to become a valued part of a community are suddenly chased from their lives because of a crime that will likely never enter the official record or the consciousness of the political manipulators who claim to care.

Here's my advice to all when it comes to understanding crime, punishment and public safety: Go where the crime happens and listen to all the people it hurts.

Jerry Sullivan is National Managing Editor at The Real Deal. You can follow him @SullivanSaysSC