‘Super Predators’ and the Drug War

(Photo: Dallas Live)

A recent TV appearance by Hamilton County Coroner O’dell Owens to discuss Cincinnati’s spiraling homicide rate and the rise of a generation of ultra-violent “super predator” criminals crystallizes some thoughts I’ve had about how police and politicians are reacting to the area’s crime wave — some of which will anger my liberal friends and some of which will anger my conservative friends.

Any discerning look at an issue, however, should be driven by facts and not ideology.

As a guest this past weekend on WKRC-TV’s Newsmakers show, Owens talked about Cincinnati’s record-breaking 83 homicides in 2006. That’s the highest number of killings since the city standardized its police record-keeping in 1950. The previous records were 82 homicides in 1967, and 81 homicides in 1971.

Owens tried to tie Cincinnati’s homicide rate to the jump in such rates in most major U.S. cities last year, describing it as part of a national trend. To be sure, killings nationwide are on the rise due to multiple factors, but a closer look at local statistics reveals that the Queen City’s spike in homicides predates the national trend and began in 2001.

That year is etched into the memories of residents who lived here at the time. Coming off a series of police shootings of unarmed black men during the previous few years, strained police-community relations erupted into three days of scattered rioting following the April shooting death of Timothy Thomas in a dark Over-the-Rhine alley during a foot chase. Thomas, who also was unarmed, was wanted on several misdemeanor warrants. Facing public outcry and scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department, disgruntled officers began a slowdown in arrests that lasted more than a year and was subtly encouraged by supervisors and the police union.

Flash-forward to the present: Like many local officials when talking about the homicide increase, Owens sought to quell public fear by attributing the prevalence mostly to drug deals gone bad, noting that many victims were buyers or sellers caught up in a situation that most residents would never find themselves in. True enough, but here’s where Owens’ comments get interesting.

The coroner described seven of the city’s homicide victims in 2006 as “innocent bystanders” but then added, “However, four of the seven had cocaine in their system. So, once you have cocaine in your system, you’re not an innocent bystander because, if you are buying drugs, you are feeding that culture of violence, because someone’s got to protect their commodity and their territory.”

The mere presence of an illegal drug in a person’s bloodstream shouldn’t diminish the impact of their death. How many college students or white collar workers have you known in your life that — at one time or another — have used marijuana, coke or some other substance? The main difference between the victims whom Owens describes and the people I’m talking about is more a matter of poverty. The victims generally live in the poor neighborhoods where much of the drug dealing occurs, while the other type of user partakes safely in the confines of a dormitory, suburban home or executive office suite.

The rampant violence plaguing the city, caused primarily by crack cocaine trafficking, is reminiscent of the mob warfare that occurred during Prohibition, when selling alcohol was made illegal between 1920-33. People routinely flaunted the law, and gangsters rose up to help fulfill the demand for liquor. Much of the violence ended when Prohibition was repealed.

If elected officials today could somehow act to reduce or eliminate the financial incentive for drug dealers, violence in U.S. cities would drop significantly. This could involve legalizing some softer drugs, such as pot, and perhaps making small doses of others available through prescription or supervision at a medical clinic, with the goal of weaning the user off. Many conservatives and Libertarians now support this view, disturbed by the billions of dollars that the nation has spent on the “War on Drugs” during the past 25 years with few results.

Later on Newsmakers, Owens said, “We’ve always had the poor neighborhoods that have struggled, but we didn’t have the drugs.” What utter hogwash. Urban historians know that various drugs have plagued America’s cities during different eras in the past, from heroin to marijuana to speed. The true difference nowadays is the prevalence of firearms, which have become cheaper and more readily available. Any effective policing strategy must do a better job of tracking how guns ended up in the hands of thugs and also apply more safeguards on their sale.

The premise of the Newsmakers episode was that crime is increasing because our culture has spawned a young generation of “super predators,” who are more violent because they have grown up in an environment of crime with little or no parental supervision.

Owens called for more community involvement in the lives of youth, which is absolutely needed. Left unsaid, though, is any exhortation for young people to stop having babies before they are ready and able to be parents. Safe, reliable birth control should be made available and young people should be encouraged to use it if they’re going to be sexually active. Having a child is always challenging. Having a child when you’re unmarried and unemployed makes the situation far worse, and having multiple children makes the odds almost unbearable.

Some critics will view this last remark in racial terms, but that’s wrong. Many whites are just as guilty of this trend as blacks or other ethnic groups. If anything, the issue is more aptly characterized as an economic one.

Owens should be applauded for taking an interest in this pressing public health matter. When is the last time a county coroner spoke out on an issue? His emphasis on improving literacy and helping poor children stay in school is exactly right, but only one component of reversing the trend.

Will some of the proposals suggested here work? I’m not sure. What I do know for certain, though, is the approach we’ve tried so far isn’t working.

— Kevin Osborne

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10 Comments on “‘Super Predators’ and the Drug War”

  1. anonymous Says:

    I wonder if there is a relationship between the increase in homicides (locally and on a national level) and welfare reform. 10 years ago welfare reform was instituted. Among other things it required recipients to get a job no matter how low paying or the hours or if child care was in place. I know many women took 2nd and 3rd shift jobs and I know that child care is always a problem. Maybe the people who are now in their teens and early twenties and who are both the perpetrators and victims of violent crimes had little to no supervison after school. Maybe there was no adult at home in the evenings because the parents were working and so were their friends parents and their relatives. There weren’t adults around to supervise and make sure homework was done or that kids were in bed at a reasonable hour or that they weren’t running the streets. I believe there are some unintended consequences of welfare reform. There is so much stress on single working parents who have low pay jobs! Jobs are so hard to maintain when the school is calling and demanding you pick up a sick child or that you attend a parent teacher conference which would mean you miss work. I think there is a connection. What do you think?

  2. David Gallaher Says:

    Sad to say, a very large segment of voters is in a chonic state of hysteria about the drugs, while the War on Drugs is what’s doing the damage.
    It is genocide against young black men in inner cities.
    Let’s end the War on Drugs, and then concern ourselves about what else needs to me done.
    Is it unreasonable of me to ask: First, stop the genocide?

  3. Natasha Says:

    Blaming the violence on “super predators” is just a cop out — it’s easier to blame it on video games, then nobody has to give up anything. I honestly believe it is the availability of guns that has created the most of the escalation in violence.

    It will take years and years to get rid of the Charleton Hestons who link having firearms to their manliness.

    Humankind has a very long way to go until it becomes enlightened.

  4. The Dean Says:

    Anon #1, your comment reminds me of the film Bowling for Columbine — the part about that six year old who took a gun to school and shot another first grader dead.

    His mother was part of a Welfare-to-Work program, where she got bussed over an hour to a shopping mall, where she worked two jobs.

  5. John Fox Says:

    Anonymous, that’s an excellent point — the reality, as both you and Kevin point out, is crime, poverty, education, welfare, policing and other issues are all interconnected — there’s no ON/OFF switch waiting to be flipped to make everything change.

    Some people claim the police bear the burden for turning things around, others claim the war on drugs has created these “super predators,” others say the schools are at fault and now Anonymous adds welfare reform to the litany of root causes — yet isn’t it amazing that most of our political leaders avoid even dealing with root causes and instead jump straight to the easy fixes (new jails, more cops) that make them look like they’re doing something when in fact they’re doing nothing but spending our tax money — remember during last fall’s campaign when Phil Heimlich said he wasn’t a “root causes guy?”

    Ultimately, to me, it all comes down to personal responsibility — why do some people think they have the right to take someone else’s property or to harm another person? How does someone actually think that’s OK? In a free society, the general idea is that each of us can do whatever we want to as long as our actions don’t interfere with another’s ability to do whatever he wants to — and we’ve devised incentives and punishments to lead people in that general direction — still, on its most basic level, for society to work we need to trust each other to do the right thing.

    How you accomplish that, well, we’ve been working on that since the dawn of civilization — doesn’t seem like in Cincinnati circa 2007 we’ve all that far along.

  6. David Gallaher Says:

    Many think shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater should be an exception to the First Amendment’s free speech protection.
    Here I’m shouting that there’s genocide of young black men in this “theater,” and, rather than a stampede, the response is, “zzzz.”
    This has to be the same kind of non-reponse that brought a smile to Hitler’s kisser during the 1930’s.
    (Then, I must admit, what John Fox said very nearly put me to sleep as well.)

  7. mc Says:

    It is good to see that there is still a discussion about the causes of what we see. If we want to change what we see, we have to understand where it comes from. We have to deal with the crime if we see that it is making life impossible in some areas. That is very true.

    However, the metaphor of treating an infection by covering it up works here. The “disease” can’t be dealt with by covering it up and ignoring it. It has to be looked into and treated at the source or it won’t get better. If we don’t understand why things are happening, we can’t understand how to deal with them effectively. We can build jails forever but that does not change the root cause of what we see. We can lock up everyone we want to and we will still have what we have now. More people with the intent to commit crime will always be coming along.

    I have no idea if this will ever change. I do see that what we are doing isn’t working. It also seems that people of good intent who have an interest in changing the situation are in short supply and frequently ignored. It looks like everyone has retreated into his own camp and refuses to consider a different approach.

    I do not see more availability of more dope as the answer. There will always be another prohibited market to take the place of outlawed drugs. Legalization of dope is great for dopers and may cut down on killing for a little while. However, if the profits drop out of the drug market, there will be another market for those who want to pursue the kind of money coming from an outlawed activity or substance.

    In the long run I cannot see legalizing dope as doing any real good. I wish we could point to one thing and find it to be the ultimate answer to this situation. It would easier to do one thing than to understand how to deal with what we see around us every day and in every area of the country.

    Like everybody else I am aware that the solutions are far more complex than we like to believe. I have thought about this for a long time and I also know that people do not want to acknowledge what is going on and enjoy pointing at everyone else. It is easier to deflect than to understand. I used to think that if we could educate people adequately, we might see more ability to work together and change this mess. Since we refuse to value an education and have no interest in emphasizing it, it will not work.

    It seems that we have to attack the problem on all sides and with the acknowledgement that this is very complicated. This stuff did not arise overnight and it won’t change overnight either. We need relief from crime and unemployment at the same time. For example, if we need more jails, build them. At the same time, could we make a concerted effort to have more job training? Is it possible to balance this out or do we have to keep repeating the mistakes of the past? It is either all carrot or all stick. Neither one works alone.

    If we have an emergency, we have to deal with it the best we can. In order to prevent more of the same kinds of emergencies, we need to find some effective preventions and actually support them. If we can learn anything from our own history, we know that ignoring a situation and then slapping the quick fix on it doesn’t work; neither does refusing to enforce laws. I don’t know what the ultimate solution is and I think most other people would say the same. I am not optimistic about our chances if we refuse to understand where our present situation comes from, if we refuse to consider complex approaches in dealing with it and if we refuse to communicate with each other in good faith.

  8. David Gallaher Says:

    You are a goddess of words. You take take a black hole and blow it into a verbal universe.
    In your case, the Blarney Stone must have made a house call.

  9. mc Says:

    David Dearest,

    I always value the wisdom arising from our nation’s first and most important doper.

    I wonder why it is that you rarely comprehend posts and always feel the need to state this. We can tell from your comments to any post longer than one line that your hobby has taken a toll already.

    As I have suggested before, less dope rather than more may be beneficial for you and many others. Try to think about that sometime.

    See? Only a few lines there. I kept it very simple for you.
    Best wishes.

  10. Every creature needs to rest. Giraffes, little babies, elephants, dogs, cats, kids, koala bears, grandparents, moms, dads, and hippos in the jungle – they all sleep! Just like eating, sleep is necessary for survival. WBR LeoP

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