If there was confusion last week about crime in Hartford, it is understandable. The Courant ran a Page 1 story on Jan. 9 reporting that homicides in the city had risen to 33, a level last reached during the gang violence of the mid-1990s. Later that morning, Mayor Eddie A. Perez held a news conference to announce that crime in the city had fallen to its lowest level in 30 years.
The conundrum is that both were right, as far as they went.
Mr. Perez said there were 1,600 fewer serious crimes last year than in 2006, a decrease of 15.5 percent. That is true but misleading. Most of the decline in Hartford crime was the result of an administrative order from Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2005 requiring that motor vehicle registration stickers be put inside windshields instead of on license plates. Hartford had about 1,300 fewer stolen license plates last year. This is a good thing — stolen plates were a real nuisance — but take those numbers out of the mix and crime is down just a bit.
In the area of violent crime, robberies and aggravated assaults were down in 2007, but rapes and murders were up. Murders went from 24 in 2006 to 32 last year. (Police said one of the 33 homicides was determined to have been justified.) Meanwhile, murder rates fell in all the state's other large cities and in New York, Boston and Chicago. Hartford had as many homicides in 2007 as Stamford, New Haven, Waterbury and Bridgeport combined.
We are not unsympathetic to Mr. Perez's efforts to put the best face on the problem and counter the impression that the city is unsafe. He is largely correct. Most of the violent crime is drug-related and not directed at law-abiding strangers or residents (though they are subject to property crime). Complaints from residents tend much more toward quality-of-life issues such as noise, speeding or litter rather than violent crime.
Nonetheless, Mr. Perez should realize that touting reductions in crime when murders have increased verges on Orwellian absurdity. The mayor should point his police department in the direction of the homicides.
Let's be clear. The real scourge here is the drug problem and the decades-long failure of the war on drugs, the Vietnam of domestic policy. In cities such as Hartford, drugs drive so much of the crime. Dealers shoot one another. Dealers rip off addicts who come to the city from the suburbs. Drug-addled prostitutes who don't get paid charge johns with rape. Addicts steal to feed their habits.
Absent an effort to change the way we deal with illegal drugs, the police have to deal with the results. Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts is pushing for tougher penalties for gun crimes, as he should. Police seized nearly 400 guns last year, evidence that the gun has become the dispute-resolution tool of choice for many of the city's lost boys. Mr. Roberts also is working with state and federal authorities on drug and firearm crime. He has a quality-of-life initiative that the General Assembly should support with funding.
He should increase these efforts, look for programs that have worked in other cities and devote more resources to solving murders, if necessary. Though progress has been made in other areas, the mayor isn't going to sell the notion that the city is safer until the murder rate goes down.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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