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The summit of all fears

Editorial by Kyle Shaw

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There’s something very Wizard of Oz about the violence summit that happened at City Hall. The invited guests met behind closed doors—pulling the curtain to keep the regular people out—before emerging with gifts. “We bring you surveillance cameras,” said the mayor. “We bring you more cops,” said the justice minister. And with that, the citizens of HRMerald City are supposed to sleep soundly? Sorry folks, but we’re not ingenuous anymore.

Although the meeting last Thursday was billed as a place for action and ideas to make the streets safer, it became the stage for an empty public relations exercise. Any credit mayor Peter Kelly receives for quickly getting the Pizza Corner cameras up and running must be tempered by two factors. First, the city is jeopardizing personal privacy rights with a technology that isn’t proven to work (surveillance cams are better for prosecuting crimes that have already happened than for stopping crime). Second, these cameras are an old idea, even in Halifax. A list of “Focus Areas” generated by city council in 2005 made it a priority to research the “cost and effectiveness of video surveillance in public areas.” This priority languished for more than 12 months until an American visitor, Damon Crooks, was murdered on Argyle Street in early November.

The announcement that the province will help pay for more police downtown is also dated. Premier Rodney MacDonald promised to put 250 new cops across Nova Scotia during the spring election campaign. Justice minister Murray Scott made the official announcement about the plan on Friday, November 3. Crooks happened to be stabbed soon after, in the wee hours of Saturday morning. By essentially repeating himself at the violence summit, Scott seemed to be exploiting the attention.

Other notions raised at the summit—a “Good Night” shuttle to whisk drunks back home, making bars close earlier, a police safety audit downtown—show the politicians focused on violence as a nightlife problem. But they are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. As I said last week in this space, there’s a growing feeling that the city is getting out of control, and people all over Metro live with a fear of getting jumped on the streets. Downtown, with its legendary history of boozy weekend rowdiness, is an obvious scapegoat. However, making Charles Street safe to walk on Tuesday night is critical for the city’s psyche.

At thecoast.ca, we’ve been hosting a kind of violence summit. While this virtual version has its drawbacks, at least anyone can contribute, and the people are speaking. (Click here to check it out). The comments make palpable how pervasive and damaging the fear is. “If this keeps up Halifax is going to become the Detroit of the east coast,” is one citizen’s warning.

Things can be done to fight crime, of course. Even surveillance cameras are an honest attempt, although the studies from heavily watched cities say lighting an area is a better deterrent. Opening a military recruiting office near Pizza Corner might help skim aggressive elements from the crowds that assemble there. The most reliable answer, however, involves police and policing.

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the “epidemic” crime level in New York City during the ’80s, and explains how it got controlled through application of the Broken Window theory. Police put serious effort into small crimes—the broken windows that signal deeper decay on a street—like people jumping the turnstile to get on the subway. Soon enough the bigger crimes just evaporated. By 1996 New York was the safest big city in America.

Halifax is a wealthy city. In the latest budget, taxes were cut and there is still over $8 million surplus. It could afford to fix the broken windows, whether the province is helping or not, and now it needs to. Otherwise the public trust will be bankrupt.

Talk about violence online at thecoast.ca, or make me rich with email: editor@thecoast.ca

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