Panic in university streets

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Joel McNally
Monday, November 12, 2007

As a long-time resident of the UW-Milwaukee neighborhood, I was asked on a television show whether I was alarmed by all the recent publicity about crime in the area after a UWM student was shot in an attempted robbery near my home.

Well, let me think. I was certainly more alarmed a few years ago when Kit and I were carjacked in our own garage by three young men, one of whom held a gun to my wife’s head.

And a few years before that when my daughter was the victim of an armed robbery returning to our house. Or the time our house, much less secure than it is now, was burglarized during the daytime twice within a week by burglars who returned to get all the stuff they couldn’t carry the first time.

My point is not to add to exaggerated media reports about rampant crime in a nice, upper-middle class neighborhood. My neighborhood actually is relatively safe.

But crime can happen anywhere. And it’s always terrifying when guns are involved.

The same week the media were fanning panic over crime around UWM, two police officers and three young men were wounded in what sounded like a shooting war between gang members and police in a Latino neighborhood on the South Side.

In many African-American neighborhoods on the North Side, even when multiple shooting deaths occur over a weekend, reporters treat the events as routine, even expected.

That was what was most insulting to all the residents of Milwaukee about the recent overwrought reporting about crime around the university. The subtext of the reporting was that there are some neighborhoods where crime is expected and others where it is not supposed to take place.

When crime starts happening in nice, upper-middle class, white neighborhoods, it’s a cause for excessive media attention. Now, crime is starting to affect the lives of people who matter.

If you torture numbers hard enough, they’ll tell you anything. In order to turn an isolated shooting into a crime wave, reporters had to engage in a little numerical waterboarding.

The UWM shooting actually occurred at a time when crime was down overall in the university area. Robberies were down 23 percent from the previous year, and burglaries were down 24 percent.

That’s why a Journal Sentinel story headlined “Shooting near UWM sparks safety fears” focused instead on assaults. Assaults in the area, the newspaper reported, were up a whopping 67 percent from 2006.

It turns out only 43 assaults were reported on the East Side through Sept. 30, 2006. For the same period this year, 72 assaults have been reported. That enormous 67 percent increase actually was actually 29 incidents over nine months.

Now ask yourself what the statistics relating to physical assaults (bar fights and whatnot) have to do with an attempted armed robbery in which someone was shot. The truth is the biggest concern of residents living in the university neighborhood is not major crime. The majority of complaints to police are almost embarrassingly minor.

By an overwhelming margin, most complaints are about noise and litter caused by partying college students. At a time when some inner-city parents have their children sleeping in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets, university neighbors want police “hush” squads saturating their area.

One particular target of complaints—large groups of students roving from party to party—may actually contribute to safety in the university neighborhood. Sociologists have known for a long time that community safety is enhanced by increasing the number of eyes on the street. The most dangerous streets are deserted ones. When my wife and I were being robbed at gunpoint in our garage, we would have welcomed a pack of noisy students roaming by to scare away our assailants.

If university area police didn’t spend so much time busting up student drinking parties at the urging of residents, they would have more time to patrol the streets to prevent more serious crime.

Last updated: 11:03 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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