Crime · Culture · Halifax · Politics · Sociology · Urban Studies

Johnny Law may need a new slingshot…

If I am to understand things correctly, the crime problem in Halifax has been caused by those under the age of 28, and the mentally ill. Or at least that was partially the impression I was left with after attending the public meetings of the Mayor’s Roundtable on Violence this past Friday and Saturday. Youth crime bred in poverty was high on the agenda, as was all the drunken debauchery that the university population engages in when they head downtown, as were drugs and of course, you can’t have drugs without the mentally ill far behind. I asked what was meant by the term “mentally ill” and was told, anyone who needs medication to function in society. Quite a broad definition considering that everyone and their dog has a prescription for some neuroses or depression or anxiety these days.

The most compelling presentation about the youth “problem” came from Supreme Court Justice Kennedy. Youth violence today is mindless and senseless, indicated Justice Kennedy. There is now not only a problem with young males, but also young females. And, what’s most troubling is that they don’t give a damn as they are engaging in anti-social behaviour. They are “alienated, amoral and adrift” and they see their lives as a violent video game and are not able to see beyond next week. They have nothing to lose. He went on to say how difficult it was to sentence someone who was not afraid of consequences. “Judges cannot lock up a generation” after all.

Now, I heard some very positive ideas being shared coming at the roundtables I attended. Namely the “breaking down of government silos” which I think was a phrase used in virtually every presentation. Everyone wants to collaborate these days… As someone who has experienced first-hand the frustrations of dealing with a number of government agencies about a single issue, the idea that departments are now going to share information and mandates is an exciting one. It seems that all levels of government are accepting the need to network their services rather than exist in isolation.

Hopefully, they will understand that a network model will only be effective if the whole is restructured in this way. There is caution necessary if only certain departments are going to be connected in particular ways, while others remain in isolation. In this particular case, the big 5 departments to be interlinked for the purposes of effective policy administration are going to be: Justice, Community Services, Education, Health and Recreation. Seems sensible enough… but again I urge caution. There could be some questionable activity linking the welfare database to the Justice Department database. Although I heard a lot of sympathy for the poor and impoverished, I also heard a lot of generalizations and disdain for the types of things that poverty breeds. It will be important to pay attention to the structure of this restructuring. As long as it doesn’t turn into Justice just integrating these departments into a framework built around Security which targets the disadvantaged, we should be okay.

It was encouraging to hear so many speak to the root causes of crime, acknowledging that there were some serious social issues at play. Issues that officials are finding the under-funded social safety net can no longer contain. Perhaps someone could correlate funding cuts to social programs and community services with the spikes in crime rates. Nobody presented that data though. While they started to dig… they stopped too soon. The causes of poverty are systemic… embedded into the very fabric of the structure.

But I digress…

There were also many interesting interpretations of the public perception of crime and law and order. Based on the information given, there are either two things happening with regards to the “fear of crime” in Halifax these days. Either, crime rates have decreased, but the fear of crime has increased because of over-sensationalization by the media, OR, the crime rate is actually increasing but what’s decreasing is the amount of crime being reported to the police, or perhaps it’s both.

The small percentage of messed up youth (and there were a number of numbers given on those) are getting out of control. Youth crime was reported to be up 17% in the past year (though not clarified was whether the 350 university students arrested for drunk and disorderly last spring were included in this percentage). But violent youth crime is up 5%. And this is only the stuff that’s being reported.

The public is terrified of gangs of roaming feral children in the night… and the media is perhaps fueling these fears by the amount of airtime given to them and the criticism that the Criminal Justice System is not doing anything about it… “Lock ‘em up,” the mobs shout. “Temperance,” says the judge. In some ways, the whole city is being hijacked by about a dozen or so punk kids who have fallen through the mesh of the social safety net, and have come to represent everything that’s wrong and scary and unpredictable about poverty to the middle and upper class. They’re hopeless…

But what about the young and the educated who seem to also have this propensity towards anti-social behaviour? The drunk and disorderly med student or the skateboarding engineer? The generational shift towards amoral conduct is working its way into the institutions…

There was a presentation given by the newly formed Halifax University Alliance in which a survey was administered online with University students in the Halifax area. The data is questionable, as is the case with most data collected in cyberspace, but there was one particular item which I found fascinating, and is actually in keeping with the sentiment that “those darn kids have no respect for authority”… 62% of those surveyed who were victimized in some way in the last 12 months, did not report the crime to the police. 13% of those unreported attacks were sexual assaults, and 25% indicated that the reason they didn’t report the crime was because the police wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything about it. No respect for authority… I’ll say!

And the individual stories of this unreported violence is flowing into the office of The Coast, which are, as I understand, forwarding this now data to the city as part of their participation in the roundtables. And along with that mistrust of the city’s finest are murmurs and rumors of corruption, which even if they aren’t true, doesn’t matter, because the youth population, and not just the urban African Nova Scotian male, is acting as if they are true thus fuelling the mistrust and disconnect.

While I think there is probably a mutual disrespect going on between the police and the population of Downtown Halifax on a Friday and Saturday night, law enforcement programs make want to consider reaching out to the students and all the more general freaks and geeks. Partnerships with the Arts Communities might go a long way.

One theme that did not go unnoticed was the call for change… some sort of change… any sort of change… Recognition that the current system is not working and the culture is moving faster than any policy can catch. Just acknowledging that there is a need to start “thinking outside the box” is a big step for some of these officials. One of the best sentiments came from the Executive Director of the newly formed Provincial Child and Youth Strategy, Robert Wright… Any policy designed to address these issues of youth culture and societal change should be inclusive and acknowledge the multiplicity of contexts that are represented in day-to-day social life. And it should acknowledge that when it comes to policy surrounding youth, they are moving targets. A good youth policy/strategy has to be malleable and move as fast to meet the needs of the moment. Now whether the government can actually speed up the processes of bureaucracy will be another matter all together.

There was very little mention of gender issues and the increase of the number of Halifax girls gone wild… and there was also no mention on marijuana policies from Justice or the Police Department. There was, however, a compelling presentation given from Tom Payette of Addiction Services noting that while all the focus has been on the drug problem… it is the alcohol problem that is at the epicenter of all addiction. He suggested that initiatives be put in place to monitor and control the alcohol industry… including the need to curb advertising which normalizes binge drinking and the youth party culture.

I wanted to ask him what he thought of pot… and the new aggressive tactics of law enforcement who appear to be charging for possession of small amounts again since bill C-38 was thrown away. I know that given the choice between walking into a group of drunk and disorderly frat boys and a group of stoners on the street on a late Friday night… I’d feel safer with the stoners any day.

There was also very little talk of surveillance and the introduction of a CCTV-type model. It seems as though the police are going to leave most of the camera management to the private sector.

Okay, so all commentary aside now… some specific positive recommendations made to the roundtable, and some positive action that is going on now.

From the Justice Department – The loosening of municipal funds from the provincial filters for law enforcement purposes

From the urban planner, Frank Palermo – HRM should start thinking of itself as a 24-hour city with 24 hour public transit.

From a number of presenters – The opening of schools to act as community centres in after-school hours

Also from a number of presenters – Possibility of “community courts” for low level crimes, mental health related crime and drug treatment

From Dr. John LeBlanc at the IWK – The city should hire a full-time Child and Youth consultant to work with relevant volunteer and government agencies.

From Professor Stephen Schneider at St. Mary’s – Youth mentoring programs and partnerships between university students and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

From Strategic Planner Jack Novack – The municipal government should get all the junk off their agenda and start thinking about policy that really matters for the growth and development of the city.

From Chief of Police Frank Beazley – the focusing of resources on criminal Hot Spots and an overall general targeting of known criminal activity through the creation of Community Response Units with a focus on Organized Crime.

All in all, I heard some very good things as a result of these meetings. There was a lot of information given, and I’m still trying to filter it all, but the encouraging thing was that it wasn’t all of the same… there was a lot of the same, but there was also a lot of new ideas from a diverse range of experts and administrators. I am really looking forward to dedicating some more brain power on this further.

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