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Winburn, Smitherman Grandstand on Serious Issue

By Kevin Osborne · April 25th, 2012 · Porkopolis
Many people think the mention of religion, politics or sex are the topics that are most likely to cause frowns, anxious looks or angry stares if they’re brought up during conversation in mixed company.

I humbly submit, however, that they’re wrong.

The topic most likely to cause consternation, at least in the United States, is the subject of race. As theologian and author Jim Wallis has said, “racism is America’s original sin and we’ve yet to repent of that sin.”

Wallis, a white man who characterizes himself as a progressive evangelical Christian and is a spiritual adviser to President Obama, has written extensively on the topics of race and racism in modern U.S. society.

“Prejudice may be a universal human sin, but racism is more than an inevitable consequence of human nature or social accident. Rather, racism is a system of oppression for a social purpose,” Wallis wrote.

He added, “The heart of racism was and is economic, though its roots and results are also deeply cultural, psychological, sexual, even religious, and, of course, political. Due to 200 years of brutal slavery and 100 more of legal segregation and discrimination, no area of the relationship between black and white people in the United States is free from the legacy of racism.”

His words burned through my mind as I listened to remarks during a special session of Cincinnati City Council that convened on April 23 to discuss black on black crime.

The meeting was called by Councilman Charlie Winburn, a Republican, and Councilman Christopher Smitherman, an independent, in response to a rash of shootings in recent weeks. Most of the incidents involved victims and suspects who were African-American and occurred in poorer neighborhoods like Avondale and Evanston.

Winburn and Smitherman are black, and both men have chided their City Council colleagues for not doing enough to deal with the problem. Smitherman, by the way, also is president of the NAACP’s local chapter.

“City Hall has no comprehensive plan to address the gun violence in African-American neighborhoods,” Smitherman wrote in a NAACP press release earlier this month. “With five African-American members on council, a comprehensive plan to address violent crime with significant financial resources can be passed. (The) Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) alone is not a comprehensive plan.”

Smitherman’s right about one thing: For the first time ever, a majority of the nine-member City Council is African-American.

Besides the men who convened the meeting, there are also Democrats Cecil Thomas and Wendell Young and Charterite Yvette Simpson.

But it would be simplistic and absurd to assume they automatically agree on the best way to broach the problem. Human beings are distinguished by many characteristics aside from race, and the members’ disparate political backgrounds and personal experiences affect how they see the situation.

For example, Thomas — who retired after serving 27 years on the Cincinnati Police Department — has said council should reaffirm its commitment to the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). Founded in 2007, the program involves a crime-fighting strategy based on a plan that helped curb gang violence and shootings in Boston.

Devised by David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, the program involves identifying the individuals in a community who are most prone to either be a victim or perpetrator of violent crimes. The group is counseled by a team of hands-on street advocates — usually ex-offenders or someone else they respect — that puts them in touch with resources and agencies that can help them, ranging from job training to substance abuse treatment.

Similar programs have been used in Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans and the Queens borough of New York, among others.

Locally, about 73 percent of Cincinnati’s homicides are committed by 0.3 percent of the population, which amounts to about 1,000-1,500 people out of the city’s roughly 300,000 residents. Targeting intensified efforts on those people is the most effective way to reduce violence, say CIRV supporters like Thomas.

At its height, CIRV provided counseling to about 300 people.

But after operating for four years, CIRV lost most of its funding amid widespread budget cuts approved by City Council in January 2011.

City Council cut CIRV’s budget from $861,000 in 2010 to $290,000 for 2011, which reduced the number of street advocates from 16 to four.

Worried about the recent uptick in violence, however, City Council restored $150,000 to CIRV late last year. That enabled the program to hire six more street advocates.

During his long police career, Thomas served in various roles within the department including on its narcotics unit and on the  homicide task force. As such, I’m inclined to trust his opinion more than a preacher’s (Winburn) or a financial planner’s (Smitherman).

Winburn and Smitherman’s big idea to quell the violence is to give another $300,000 to CrimeStoppers. The money would be used to give larger cash rewards — up to $15,000 each from the current $1,000 — for tips that lead to the arrest and prosecution of murder suspects.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Mirroring a trend nationally, the violent crime rate in Cincinnati is dropping. There were 66 homicides in the Queen City during 2011, compared to 72 homicides the previous year.

Still, the vast majority of homicide victims are black males.

Speaking at the council meeting, Police Chief James Craig said one of the factors driving the violence is the lack of parental involvement in their children’s lives. The lack of love and concern can instill hopelessness into people, which can spark reckless actions.

In my view, that’s a societal trend that’s developed over decades due to complicated reasons including poverty and segregation. No amount of CrimeStoppers money is going to solve it.

Although Craig didn’t agree that increasing the cash rewards for all tips would work, he did indicate increasing rewards for specific cases might be warranted.

“When you have a 4-year-old shot and we can’t get information, something is wrong with that picture,” the chief said.

So, what is the solution? I’m not sure. And judging from their comments, neither are Winburn or Smitherman, which raises the question of why the meeting was called at all.



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