Wrestling the elephant: How do we deal with crime report demographics?

Opinion August 16, 2012 5 Comments

Dealing with the elephant in the room is never easy.

Pete Mazzaccaro

We make mistakes every week in the Local, but last week we omitted a detail that caught the attention of quite a few readers.

The detail was left out of last week’s story about the robbery of Delphine Gallery. In the online edition that was published the next day, we included a paragraph that was inadvertently left out of the print version. It read as follows:

“Police say they are looking for an African American male, 5’10,” with a medium build, 25-30 years of age, based on descriptions from Spangler and other witnesses. At the time of the robbery, he was wearing a long dark navy blue dress and a shoulder-length braided wig. The robber wore a white silk mask over his face. Police also say the man fled in a black Ford Explorer.”

I received a number of phone calls from readers after our paper hit the newsstands. They asked, “What race was the guy who robbed the gallery?” and “Why did we leave it out?”

I think it’s fair to say that the calls really weren’t from people who wanted to record Chestnut Hill crimes by skin color. I think I was being called out for what some guessed was a reluctance to identify the race of the robber because of some sort of agenda of political correctness. The point was that the description detail belonged there. They are right. Case closed.

I did find myself wondering, as the phone calls continued, what good such descriptions would these descriptions do anyway?

Every week in our published crime reports, there are robbers, burglars, thieves, etc., and most fit a very generic description: They are black men between the ages of 16 and 35, of various builds and skin tones, who wear an assortment of jeans, khakis and white T-shirts.

I suppose the descriptions, at their best, would empower citizens to identify criminals. But are Hillers really going to make citizens arrests based on these descriptions? Because they are almost always generic, the effect is that citizens of Chestnut Hill could simply conclude that they need to be on the lookout for young black men.

This is obviously not good for several reasons.

First, it should go without saying that not all young black men are criminals.We can choose to be suspicious of others based only on those fewest of demographic details and be right sometimes. But we’d more often be very wrong.

Second, not all criminals are black. As I said to one caller, it wouldn’t have mattered for description purposes what race the Delphine Gallery robber was. White, black, whatever – a guy in disguise as an old lady is trouble.

Yes. It’s true that Chestnut Hill crime reports show that most crime here is committed by young black men. Is that because young black men are inherently “a problem” or because we live and work in a neighborhood that’s a stone’s throw from some of the most poor and deprived black neighborhoods in the United States?

It would certainly be wrong to omit or censor descriptive details about criminals in our neighborhood.

But we can’t simply sit back and draw the same lazy conclusions about race that have dogged this country for generations. No, we’re not going to solve problems of racial inequality and their socio-economic impacts. Nor do we need to wring our hands and make excuses for the actions of criminals.

What’s more important is that we work on finding ways to prevent crime and protect those who live, shop and work here. That has nothing to do with race at all.

 

 

 

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  • Tracy

    Wow, my assumption was that a description was not given to the community because it was not available – the disguise made a meaningful description impossible, the fear of those witnessing this precluded rationally gathering details, or anything along those lines. It never occurred to me there was information available to the public and it was withheld. At the 14th Police district meeting at the Library last year the officers stressed for all our sake — do not be self censoring because of political correctness, if you see anything suspicious: report it and talk with your neighbors about what you see. I hope the paper will report details as these going forward. The Local is in no danger of reasonably being called racist for publishing known facts of a crime but it can be considered not serving the community by withholding such details.

    • http://profiles.google.com/pmazz04 Pete Mazzaccaro

      Just to be clear, Tracy, we didn’t withhold the info. It was published here immediately (if you read our story online, you would have seen the paragraph). That graph was added to the draft online before it was published but not in print. It was an oversight and not a deliberate editorial decision.

      • Tracy

        Good to hear – am relieved that information as this is disseminated as widely as possible for safety sake, PC sentimentalism notwithstanding…

  • Chuck

    The point is that if this had been a white male with tatoos and a bald head all reports would have included this information and some would probably have called him an “alleged tea party member or some right wind nut”. You know it, I know it, and probably the majority of your readers know it.

  • Joe

    Why can’t the Local just flat out name the part of the city that is “poor and deprived” and “black”? Is it just Germantown which everyone seems scared of whether they should be or not, or is it all of Cedarbrook, or West Oak Lane, even though the latter clearly if you look at demographic data are middle class overwhelmingly, or the “bad part of Mount Airy” that everyone knows about but can never quite identify in full? Let’s not dance around these kinds of claims.