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Communities Under Fire

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It will take a fair and impartial investigation to put to rest public concerns about whether a white police officer used proper procedures and good judgment before pulling the trigger and fatally wounding Michael Brown, a black unarmed teen in Ferguson, MO.

I’m in no position to assess blame. But before all of the details of the incident were revealed, unruly crowds took to the streets to loot and burn stores and vandalize vehicles. Their attention would have been better directed toward trying to find out why so many black males end up in the same space with cops — and whether this lethal combination is an omen for the strife and alienation to come in urban areas across America.

Being a police officer in the “hood” is far from easy. Cops who work in the urban core are typically accused or suspected of targeting black youth. They also deal with a criminal underclass unlike any in our past. Every day of every year, black youth are involved with gangs and drugs, or are perpetrators or victims of drive-by shootings, murder, rape and robberies that terrorize the communities they live in.

Controlling the crime wave has a lot to do with how police are managed, how they are deployed and how their mission is defined and executed. Where they exist, lax administrative controls that permit, if not condone, police misconduct must be tightened. An effective disciplinary system also is required to prevent or otherwise deal with officers who abuse their authority.

Although most officers play by the rules, conflicts with police tend to go with the territory. And cops aren’t social workers.

At the root of the reprehensible behavior among urban predators is the breakdown of the family structure. The poorest of these non-traditional families are often a breeding ground for “bad seeds.” Youngsters rooted in this environment have less chance of learning to live with delayed gratification and of resisting the temptations of the streets. Characterized as ruthless and pathological, they tend to be devoid of strong values, morals and conscience.

Their apologists claim black criminals strike out due to their feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and despair. Black children, it is alleged, are prone to such behavior because of their feelings of racial inferiority that stem from an inherent handicap in self-esteem.

Part of the answer to violent teen behavior, they say, lies in creating inner-city jobs and correcting the failures of public education. It’s well known that young male school dropouts, who join the ranks of the chronically unemployed and succumb to macho pressures from their peers, commit most of the crimes. But do they qualify for anything but the most menial jobs?

We’ve tried for generations to rationalize away this widening social deficit; even soliciting government to grab the reins fractured families let slip away. But government can’t do for us what blacks must ultimately do for themselves. And it’s time advocates stop transmitting the message that these cold-blooded thugs are merely passive pawns to social forces.

Most law-abiding citizens realize that occasional mistakes by police in the normal course of their duties are unavoidable when dealing with extreme elements, and part of the price we pay for vigorous law enforcement. At the same time, history teaches that threats to liberty and constitutional rights often follow the failure of government to protect the lives and property of the people. That’s why inside distressed communities support grows for not less, but more aggressive policies and bolder steps to suppress the crime surge.

Will an all-out counterattack against the extraordinary violence and moral degeneration of homegrown offenders usher in a police state mentality that ignores or refashions procedures that protect the rights of the accused? Will tougher enforcement be viewed as too extravagant when charges of racism surface?

The proliferation of inner-city dysfunction poses a dilemma for the black community: Find a way to restore black families, or give cops a longer leash to deal with the criminals they breed. Otherwise, internecine violence and confrontations with cops will continue to cast their ominous shadow over urban life.