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Fight Crime, and Poverty, with Civil Society

Washington Examiner

August 3, 2023

Maryland’s new Democratic governor, Wes Moore, has to play to his party’s increasingly left-wing base, but he also knows that problem No. 1 in much of the state is rising crime.

Prince George’s County, in particular, has a much higher crime rate than the national average, and crime has been rising since the COVID lockdowns, which were extraordinarily draconian in PG County.

Moore went to PG County on Aug. 1 for “National Night Out,” an annual event aimed at building community ties. There, he spoke about crime.

“It isn’t just about how are we focusing on addressing violent crimes, but it’s also about the role that law enforcement has in terms of building up communities, the role models and the examples that they’re playing for all, for so many young children inside of our society,” Moore said, according to a WTOP report.

“The best way you can actually address public safety is [having] a community that knows each other, have a community that fights for each other,” he added.

This last part may strike the conservative as wishy-washy airy stuff, but it’s true and important.

Neighborliness and social trust reduce crime, often more than direct governmental programs, including law enforcement, can. This backs up some of the arguments of the “defund the police” crowd: Policing isn’t the only way, and it’s often not the best way, to fight crime.

As sociologists put it rather turgidly, “Violence is regulated through informal sources of social control arising from residents and organizations internal to communities.”

The most important part of this is probably neighbors knowing and trusting one another and other institutions — such as churches, schools, and businesses — having the incentive and credibility to enforce and encourage norms of good behavior.

But police are a key part of it, and every community leader in every crime-affected neighborhood knows that. This detail from the event Moore attended is part of the story: “At the event held at Beckett Field, first responders, city officials, community groups, and residents started up conversations. Law enforcement officers played ball and posed for pictures with children.”

We used to call this “community policing.” Crime is lower in places where the police know the people. This cuts against one of the central talking points of “defund the police” ideologues. The “defunders” often say it is imperative to reduce “encounters” between the community and police because such encounters are traumatic.

In reality, the police and the people should rub elbows a lot.

But there’s a bigger truth here that one hopes Moore realizes: His point on fighting crime also applies to fighting other cultural maladies. Moore could say, “The best way you can actually address poverty is having a community that knows each other,” and, “The best way you can actually address child abuse is having a community that knows each other,” and even, “The best way you can actually address racism is having a community that knows each other.”

That is, the organic action of civil society helps people keep their lives together and functions as a human-level safety net that is often much more comprehensive and resilient than direct government aid or regulation.

Moore and other governors ought to reflect on what their governments are doing that undermines civil society. Obviously, the COVID lockdowns dissolved community bonds by outlawing things such as National Night Out, pickup basketball, Little League, and actual school.

Moore should give a speech explaining how the lockdowns were a grave mistake that imposed more harm than good. “Never again will government tear people from their neighbors and their institutions of civil society,” he ought to say.

Also, Moore has been around the block enough to know that in places such as PG County and Baltimore City, the most important institutions of civil society are the churches. Moore ought to work hard to foster churches as visible and vocal parts of the public square in all corners of Maryland.

This would clash with the current effort by parts of the Left to drive religious institutions into the shadows. But if you’re not an ideologue, and if you care about helping people, you need to make sure civil society can flourish.