By Mark Obbie
Criminal justice reform is "absolutely stalling out," and the blame lies with journalists who hype scary violent crimes out of context without showing how responses other than just brute force by the police can provide public safety, panelists said at a symposium for journalists who cover crime policy.
The first panel discussion at Thursday's opening of the 17th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America tackled head-on the question posed as the symposium's overall theme: "Is the window of reform closing?"
The panel, moderated by Elizabeth Glazer, former justice advisor to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, found consensus on the kinds of interventions that deserve more sustained support from cities, as a means of balancing the immediate needs of public safety with the longer-range goals of reforming policing and punishment. But, while two panelists singled out media coverage as the cause of undue alarm over recent increases in gun violence, the third panelist took issue with the premise and advocated confronting the reality of increased violence without abandoning reforms that work.
Journalists' interpretations of crime trends are "the single most important part of getting through this" period of political backlash, said Insha Rahman, vice president of advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice. The media have fed the public a relentless message that "police equal safety," she said. Instead of quoting police sources first, or even exclusively, in their stories, journalists should branch out more in their reporting, she said. "Turn to more sources than the one you have on speed dial," Rahman urged.
Jamila Hodge, executive director of Equal Justice USA, agreed, saying she was "astounded" and saddened by how quickly the momentum for reform fueled by the 2020 racial justice protest movement died. "It's like it never happened," Hodge said.
But, said former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, the problem isn't just one of "messaging," as Rahman put it. Nutter echoed his comments that drew attention last December, when in a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary he attacked District Attorney Larry Krasner over whether that city's violence is real or imagined. In comments he later apologized for, Krasner had said "we don't have a crisis of violence" when asked if tourists should be worried when visiting the city. Noting the city's record levels of shootings, Nutter attributed Krasner's views to "ignorance and white privilege," adding, "I have to wonder what kind of messed up world of white wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for human lives lost."
On Thursday's panel, Nutter remained consistent, though more diplomatic. "You can't solve a problem if you don't acknowledge you have a problem," he said. "We can't ignore reality."
The panelists found common ground when talking about Newark as a shining example of a major city that bucked the trend of surging violence in 2020-21, by investing in community-based intervention programs partnered with a reformed police department. "It's an amazing example, and it's working," said Hodge, whose Equal Justice USA has been a part of the efforts there to reduce violence.
The success in Newark, Rahman said, hinged on consistent messages from the criminal justice system's players and the community that "we fundamentally believe in this reform" and that it is part of the work to protect lives, not counter to it. "Perception matters, and the news and what we see on the front page of the newspapers shapes perception," she said.
When "defund the police" became the catchphrase of the 2020 protests, "I think that just flipped a lot of people out" because violence simultaneously spiked up, Nutter said. The natural response during moments of danger "is to retreat to what you know," which is mainly muscular police responses, he said. City leaders should support alternatives with as much vigor as they support policing, and must get better at sending the reform-friendly message, "There is no one solution to public safety," Nutter said.