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Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Feb. 20, 2024

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Jayne: Crime follows social fractures

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

It’s a problem. Undoubtedly, it’s a problem. It is a chipping away of public safety and a sense of security and the things that make our community livable.

During a virtual town hall last week, local law-enforcement leaders detailed some stunning statistics. Crime in the city of Vancouver has increased 60 percent since 2019, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said. There were, for example, 2,183 reports of auto thefts in 2021, compared with 1,627 two years prior. There were 3,533 reports of vandalism, compared with 1,877 in 2019, and a 49 percent increase in burglary over the two years.

Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins shared similar horror stories. There has been a 33 percent increase in lower-level crime in recent years in the areas covered by the sheriff’s office.

Nationally, a rise in violent crime has been well-documented, with the homicide rate showing record increases. Thankfully, that wave has not washed over Clark County, where violent crime numbers are stagnant or falling.

Of course, the aggregate doesn’t matter if you are a victim. If your home is burglarized, that outweighs a metric ton of statistics in terms of your sense of safety and your feelings toward our community. And if your car is broken into, you probably don’t care about the reasons for rising crime or the sociological explanations; you just know it’s a problem.

The explanations for this are legion. There is the economic and social stress of a pandemic. There are pervasive drug issues that contribute to homelessness and fuel criminal activity. There is, as the law-enforcement leaders detailed, a lack of space at the Clark County Jail. With COVID-19 distancing protocols exacerbating what already was a shortage of room, offenders are being returned to the streets, where they can offend again.

Indeed, the reasons behind a rise in local crime are complex. But at the root of this is a slow but undeniable fracturing of society. There is a drip-drip-drip of lawlessness that is eroding the bedrock of our communities.

As columnist Leonard Pitts wrote last month: “The social covenant has shattered. Meaning the thousand unspoken understandings by which a society functions, the agreements to which we all sign on without a word being spoken. Some are encoded in law, others just encoded in us. Either way, they are rules — ‘norms’ might be a better word — people usually obey even when they could get away without doing so.”

We don’t have to look far for examples in the past two years. There has been looting during Black Lives Matter protests. There has been a president willfully flouting norms by refusing to release his tax returns and ignoring the emoluments clause of the Constitution. There have been excuses for white supremacists, with suggestions that “you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” There have been people protesting simple mandates such as mask-wearing during a pandemic. There have been former officials ignoring subpoenas from Congress. There have been seditionists attacking the U.S. Capitol, only to be lauded by many members of Congress.

In any direction, we can see anti-social behavior accompanied by little accountability and few consequences, but plenty of “both-sidesism.” Is it any wonder that crime increases in this climate, when increasing numbers of people believe that violence is justified to protect what they imagine democracy to be?

There is a line of thinking in criminology and sociology circles called the Broken Windows Theory. It states that visible signs of crime and decay and social blight – such as broken windows – leads to further destruction. And while the theory has been the subject of much debate among people who have more college degrees than I do, it is easy to see how it applies here.

The windows of our social construct have been shattered, and that is a problem. Is it any wonder that a rise in crime follows?