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Reversing the spiral

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A week from today I’ll be back in #TheLand where the debris from the Cavs championship parade will still be visible in a few corners. It was just June 22 when 1.3 million residents of Northeastern Ohio crammed into downtown to celebrate the region’s first championship since 1964 and its first NBA crown ever. The greatest comeback in hoops history lofted what would have been an incredible celebration in any year to heights (and crowds) not imagined.

And it was all peaceful. Despite the less than ideal transportation. Despite the jammed crowds and lack of water and facilities. It all worked. Peacefully. And in a city and a region that has known violence and has its own entry in the list of tragedies over the past two years between police and public: Tamir Rice.

I have read that the Cleveland police are under Department of Justice supervision and that they have a rough relationship with the African-American community. I just know them from 200 trips to the city as a kid, a teenager, a young adult and often now as an adult visiting a great radio market for 1420 AM The Answer WHK. Always — in the old days going back and forth to Municipal Stadium or these days at the airport or at events all around town — the Cleveland cops have been professional, organized, welcoming. You can always talk Browns with the Cleveland men and women in blue. Dig a little deeper and you can talk on-air or off about the bad old days of the ’70s when a mob war raged and cars blew up fairly regularly. (See “Kill the Irishman.”)

Most of my friends in the city — Keelin and Jim O’Neill, Golden Domers and lawyers from Toledo and Case respectively, or Avery Friedman, civil rights crusader and CNN analyst — are Democrats, but that basically is a card issued to you on buying a home in Cuyahoga County. Cleveland’s part of NEO and NEO is a Democratic place after all. It also has enjoyed an arc of black-white relations that seems to have been improving on a steady course since the ’60s. This coming week, who knows? Three weeks ago it was one delirious big parade.

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I am in and out of Dallas and the Twin Cities a lot as well. These are stops on radio road too, and places that come together around sports as well, but are now divided so deeply as to stagger the ordinary occasional visitor. Minnesota? The land of the “Great Minnesota get-together,” a state fair that annually draws 1 out of 8 Minnesocoldians to its gates, or “Minnesota nice” and a hot dish on every step? Dallas, which has the worst freeways and the friendliest people in America?

Walk through any major airport in America and the diversity is vast and peaceful. Airport America makes you think (1) what a vast and diverse country we have and (2) how remarkable we all get along so well.

But there is a second America, one I never get to see even as traveling talker, but which I glimpsed in the pages of Los Angeles Times reporter Del Wilber’s new book A Good Month for Murder. Wilber’s book is the result of two years immersed in the Prince George’s County, Md., homicide squad, and it is a deep dive into a world most Americans never see, a world driven in its violence and unpredictability mostly by the worst epidemic of life-destroying drugs in a generation. Addicts rob and kill the vulnerable. Murders are routine. The police are overwhelmed. Communities stay indoors as drug gangs roll through the night. Cops struggle to identify bodies, much less solve murders. It’s not “airport America” or “sports America” or “political America.” It’s high crime America and it’s dangerous and deadly and when in it, police are at risk.

So what to do about a situation that is spiraling down (and if bottom wasn’t hit in Dallas with the assassination of five good police officers doing their jobs and the wounding of seven others, I shudder to think what “bottom” is.. My television career began in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992, driving though burning streets to a studio across from a torched Circuit City. I didn’t think I’d see that again, but now, who knows?

What Los Angeles did then was pour resources and leadership into its police, running through a string of Chiefs of Police — Willie Williams, Bernard Parks, Bill Bratton, Charlie Beck — each one of whom increased transparency, demanded and received more resources and worked across a vast and incredibly diverse community to “protect and serve.” The police in the City of Angels aren’t perfect, but they are vastly better than in 1992. Incremental change works if backed by leadership and money.

The first of many “answers” seems to me to be in shifting — massively and immediately — people and money from far away D.C. bureaucracies to local police.

Imagine cutting every federal agency by a third and sending those positions and that budget to major metropolitan police departments. There are 2.6 million federal employees. Imagine how much more effective policing in America could be if the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities shrunk by a third in budget and people, and the 900,000 full time employees and the dollars to pay them transferred to local governments and local departments.

Sure: Dialogue and forums matter. But get local police leadership and money. That’s the ticket to returning the arc to one headed north, not south.



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