Is Iowa City the next Keokuk?

Published this week: Iowa City is safe, but don’t worry — it’s not that safe. (And at least it’s better than Keokuk.)

One story from the Press-Citizen this week says that Iowa City is one of the safest places in the U.S.

“Iowa City was ranked 19th among 138 United States cities with populations less than 150,000, according to the Eighth Annual Farmers Insurance Group of Companies study.”

Though, don’t get too excited:

Iowa City Police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said Iowa City might not have the high rates of major crimes that larger metropolitan areas grapple with, but it still has its issues.

“We do have a safe community, but there’s those issues we have to deal with,” she said. “We still have things going on here that affect the everyday lives of people.”

That’s right, we’re not that safe.

And then, in the Saturday’s paper, a column agrees that the city needs to worry more about crime:

The 10 current and incoming council members voted on issues they believe should receive priority commitment over the next two to four years. Their collective decision placed priorities on issues ranging from financial budget and economic development to a new animal shelter and flood mitigation.

But in the reports I read, crime was missing from the list of priority issues.

That’s surprising, because whether it’s exaggerated perceptions or reality, crime has been the focus of one of our community’s heated controversies over the past several years. An important question is whether the increased level of crime locally is beyond what could reasonably be expected for a community our size.

Whatever the reason, crime is real and it’s not going away. Our council needs to maintain a priority on public safety, including ways to assist law enforcement professionals in their fight against crime. The same, of course, goes for all of our area’s governing bodies — county supervisors and councils for other cities and towns.

So from these stories am I supposed to be afraid? Vigilant? Safe?

Where are all of the statistics or evidence or anecdotes in these stories? From reading these pieces, do we have a sense of what counts as crime in our city or what and how the police department capture as crime data? What is safe? What is not?

One of these pieces includes the environment and health when defining what safe is. The other piece, without any clarification of what makes us unsafe, seems to talk only about “crime.” Am I just supposed to know what is crimeful?

If someone had seen the paper earlier this week, they would have seen a story that talks about how police are spending more time outside the bus stop at the downtown mall: Short story is that young Blacks are getting into more trouble at this spot.

From the Gazette:

IOWA CITY  – Police in Iowa City will be spending more time at a busy bus-stop in downtown after a recent outbreak of fighting incidents.

Police Sergeant Denise Brotherton said more officers will patrol the area around the Iowa City transit stop on the North side of the Old Capitol Town Center. Police have been called to break-up fights in the area at least 13 times in three months.

“We’ve had more fights, more aggressive behavior,” Brotherton said. “It’s gotten a little extreme and the behavior is totally unacceptable.”

Two people have been charged by police following fights on Monday and Tuesday of this week.

Crowds of up to 50 people frequently gather at the stop. Many bus-riders wait for their bus inside the mall, especially during winter months.

“There are a lot of juveniles,” said Brotherton. “Anytime you have unsupervised kids, you’re going to have some issues.”

Old Capitol Town Center manager Kevin Digmann said the mall is aware of the recent fighting and is trying to address concerns from the public.

“We are doing what we can do, but this is a community issue,” said Digmann. “We really need some help from the city.”

But I’ve talked to some of these kids. They don’t seem to be that rough, that bad. They may act tough, but they are always on stage — cops standing and watching. Whites walking by scared or staring.

I’d act out, too, if that were the case for what my daily life was like.

Either way, that’s crime in Iowa City, apparently, and the City Council should talk more about it. And so should the police — cause, after all, we need to be protected.

The problem? You don’t know either?

There’s just one problem. None of these stories talk about what may cause crime: Poor transportation to and from anywhere in this city (including between home and school for many of these youth), for instance, might fit in as an answer.

And sure, someone could say economic inequality causes crime, and it does. However, there are easier fixes to make crime go away, and I would expect the news media to be a bit more interested in discussing how and why “crime” occurs. Instead, the news seems to support mainstream solutions, many of which revolve around more policing and policies.

Do we not care how and why “crime” is occurring, but just want to write about how crime should be curbed? Maybe not.

That’s not surprising. For instance, The Gazette seems to support plans in their own city to blame parents for kids’ problems, not the kids themselves, or the community at-large. (And I argue that they support this because of the lack of reporting to show what causes for crime might be, other than parenting.) Indeed, Cedar Rapids (and maybe Iowa City soon?) is considering a plan to place youths’ “crimes” in the parents.

In all of these discussions, can we define what crime is, please? I still don’t know what that means.

In my neighborhood, a loud argument on the sidewalk between two white people is not a “verbal altercation” as the same loud event is when between two Blacks on the city’s Southeast Side. So what’s what? (Even two local blogs about crime base the issues of crime on race, not on the causes of crime: Iowa City Crime Report and Broadway Crime Report.)

But local media may be right to struggle with these definitions of what crime is, because they are not alone. The Atlantic Cities ran an interesting post about “the problem with city crime rankings” to reveal the problems of crime rankings and statistics of being crude assessments of a single portion of society, with little depth to understand what the numbers mean:

The American Society of Criminology calls them “invalid, damaging, and irresponsible…City crime rankings make no one safer, but they can harm the cities they tarnish and divert attention from the individual and community characteristics that elevate crime in all cities.” Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors denounced the publication as “a premeditated statistical mugging of America‘s cities.”

What exactly is wrong with City Crime Rankings? “Where does one begin?” asks criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, a longtime critic of the publication. “The fundamental problem with the rankings is that they are supposed to inform individuals about their chances of becoming victims of crime, yet they tell you almost nothing about a person’s risk for crime. A person’s age, gender, their activities—all those help tell you a person’s risk for crime.”

Comparing crime within cities is vastly more useful than comparing crime between cities, Rosenfeld adds. Data on crime patterns within a city’s boundaries help police and public officials decide where to concentrate resources, “but whether a person lives in Billings, Montana, or Baltimore, Maryland, tells you nothing,” he says.

Another (getting old) example

Why should media try to define the crime it is so happy to write about?

Well, late last week, an Atlantic piece about Iowa held many stereotypes about the rural parts of the state, but also about its more urban areas that were attached to perceptions of crime and cities:

Mark Twain once lived in Southeast Iowa, in Keokuk, working at his brother’s printing press. He also was employed nearby as a reporter for the Muscatine Journal. When Twain lived in Keokuk 150 years ago, the Gateway City was a sought-after destination; some seriously said Keokuk would someday rival Chicago as a metropolis of culture and commerce. Thirty-eight hotels crowned the intersection of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers. The coming of the railroads changed all that, and today, Keokuk, is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they’re some of the skuzziest cities I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something.

What’s troubling is that the responses to the article last led to outrage throughout the nation about how Iowa was talked about, yet, Saturday’s piece on Iowa City’s dangerousness seems to come from a protected White position, from someone in a higher class position than those he may be discussing, who is calling for more policing, more constraints, more “personal responsibility” and more discussion that does little to answer what the problems are in our community and what can be done.

The Atlantic piece does the same thing. It talks about issues of rural decline and death, urban crime and despair.

Neither of the pieces provide answers or real data about what’s happening in these spaces and leaves the reader with nowhere to go but what they believe is true about the spaces and places of Iowa.

It is especially interesting that while people call-out the author of the Atlantic piece as being close-minded, elitest and and written by a questionable character, no one will likely call out the author of the Press-Citizen opinion piece.

Maybe it is because we are okay protected those in power in Iowa (Whites, even if poor and rural), but not those within out own communities who are often with darker skins and lacking political and social power.

If we take anything from the recent Bloom brouhaha about talking smack about Iowa, we should question how and why the media (which includes writer’s group member Bob Elliot who wrote the piece I am discussing here in the PC) talk about our cities, neighborhoods, crime and what should be done about it.

Why should we ask this? Because the media aren’t. And that, just like anything else that might lead to crime, is a problem in our community.