OEDEL: Lessons from history

June 15, 2014 

In his June 6 op-ed, former two-term Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis defended his crime-fighting record. Though Ellis skirted the charge that he backed off of assertive embedded policing around Village Green, a largely African-American Macon neighborhood, Ellis attacked the stop/question/frisk policing approach.

Ellis claimed that he reduced crime while not offending “certain segments of our community.” Ellis wrote, “I invite you to check the homicide rate and overall crime rate” during his 2000-2008 tenure and that of his appointee, Police Chief Rodney Monroe. “I am sure you will discover a reduction in most, if not all, categories of crime.”

But numbers don’t lie. While property crime declined 2000-2008 before the recession, violent crime rates increased dramatically under Ellis. Had Ellis adopted more effective policing strategies during his administration, violent crime rates could have fallen, not risen.

Instead, Ellis not only pretends now that his policing strategy was “highly successful,” but he also continues to resist the spurned alternatives. Incidentally, his successor, Robert Reichert, largely followed Ellis’ ineffectual lead on policing strategies. Ellis and Reichert had their chances to address Macon’s crime problem and failed. It’s time to try what they rejected.

Let’s look at the facts. Eighteen homicides occurred in Ellis’ first year, 19 in his last year. By the broader measure of “violent crime,” including rape, robbery and aggravated assault, 841 such incidents occurred in Ellis’ first year, 884 in his last. Those are increases only of 5 percent in absolute numbers, but the rates of violent crime grew dramatically higher.

That’s because of Macon’s seismic population loss under Ellis. Macon’s city population fell from 119,131 in Ellis’s first year to 92,576 in his last, a 22 percent decrease in just eight years.

When Ellis was first mayor, 15 of every 100,000 Maconites were murdered, versus 20 of every 100,000 Maconites in Ellis’ last year -- a 33 percent increase. In 2000, 706 of every 100,000 Maconites could expect to be victims of aggravated assault. Eight years later, 955 of every 100,000 Maconites were victims of aggravated assault -- a whopping 35 percent increase.

Ellis now claims to have been free of “racial sensitivities” in his mayoral decision-making. But Ellis proceeded to confirm such sensitivities by trying to shame anyone endorsing a stop/question/frisk policy to strip guns from those in Macon who shouldn’t legally be carrying. That includes, for example, possessors of stolen guns, any concealed pistol-carriers under 21, pistol-concealers over 21 without a permit, convicted felons and probationers with gun restrictions.

Ellis wrote that a stop/question/frisk policy would be “an invitation to violate the rights of certain segments of our citizens.” That’s an admission by Ellis that racial sensitivities affected his law enforcement decision to reject stop/question/frisk as offensive to African-Americans.

While Ellis’ 2000-2008 administration in Macon was spurning the embedding of police in largely African-American neighborhoods and stop/question/frisk, New York City was showing well-publicized evidence of the stunning success of its stop/question/frisk policy and embedded community policing. Instituted about 1996, those policies quickly, remarkably transformed New York City from one of the most crime-ridden big cities to one of the least.

True, New York’s stop/question/frisk policy became controversial much later, after the city’s crime rate fell. It then grew questionable for New York City police to continue disproportionately targeting young minority men despite that cohort having improved to more normal crime-proclivity levels. But that was long after New York City racked up big improvements from its new policies -- and long after Ellis fatefully, erroneously chose more racially “sensitive” policing for Macon despite the best contemporary evidence about addressing bad crime problems.

Today, fear of racially disproportionate policing is largely academic in Macon, especially as to violent crime. For instance, Macon’s murderers and their victims alike are overwhelmingly African-American. Let’s acknowledge that, and begin practically addressing the problem with more proactive policing.

Better parenting, schools, jobs and culture and a welfare system that doesn’t incentivize poverty are worthy goals. However, it will take time and safe conditions to cultivate them. For now, we need to try to stop the killing by using tested, constitutional approaches that can work.

David Oedel teaches constitutional law at Mercer University law school.

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