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What criminals can teach us about fighting crime

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"You know for sure that you ran over his feet?"

"Oh, yeah. I felt that."

"Did you hear him say anything, scream or anything?"

"I hear bones break, like all this down here was just crushed. I didn't give a fuck, though."

Driving down Hollowell Parkway on a balmy July afternoon, Topalli knows many of the people walking along the street. A fresh-faced Spelman student waves off his offer of a ride. A hunched-over heroin addict dips down an alley, failing to register him. "They used to think I was a cop," Topalli says, checking out a bunch of guys lounging on a high porch. "Now they think I'm a developer."

click to enlarge Members of the English Avenue Public Safety Committee listen for ways to fight crime. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Members of the English Avenue Public Safety Committee listen for ways to fight crime.

There is a small surge in construction on the Westside, where land is relatively cheap and gentrification is in its infancy. To some, the shiny new houses signify a shift toward a safer future. Topalli points out that knocking down abandoned homes and replacing them with pricier ones could help bring a new sense of responsibility to the neighborhood. But that's not going to stop crime.

"What you'll have is a neighborhood with nice houses in it," he says, "but still a crime problem."

Yet there are little things that can help. Topalli asks robbers what they search for when they're targeting a victim. He asks burglars what they look for when they're casing a house. He asks dealers what they do to make a sale. Then he meets with groups such as the English Avenue Public Safety Committee, the Vine City Civic Association and the Neighborhood Planning Unit that covers the Westside, and shares with them what he knows.

He's learned that robbers steal street signs so that cops can't find crime scenes. Now residents press the city to replace them.

He's learned that a dealer throws a pair of shoes over a power line to signal that dope is for sale underneath. Now residents form teams that pull shoes off the lines.

He's learned that burglars prefer houses in front of streetlights that have been snuffed out. Now residents push Georgia Power to fix all the broken streetlights. At a recent meeting of the English Avenue Public Safety Committee, Lee Cronan, a Georgia Power engineer, told the crowd of 20 or so people that he likens his task of repairing streetlights on the Westside to his two tours running recon in Vietnam. "I'm not afraid," he said. "Up to this point, I've had two knives pulled on me and a gun pulled on me."

Topalli believes that, in addition to the little things he's learned, a big part of fighting crime is finding a way to overcome two key components of the code of the street.

One is the way in which criminals perceive the future. It's true that poverty, strained schools, peer pressure and a fractured family can push a person toward crime. But not everyone living under those circumstances becomes an offender. Topalli says the biggest difference between those who turn to crime and those who don't is how far into the future they can think. Most criminals literally don't conceive of things happening a month or week or day from now. "They see that life is short," he says. "It's an ethos. You could die at any time."

Topalli says that when people can look foward to the future -- even a few days into the future -- it can help deter them from crime.

In addition to an absent future, the other major contributor to violent crime is the retaliation factor. That's one of the most crucial lessons Topalli has learned from his work: Until the urge to retaliate can be controlled, crime will continue to spread.

Topalli points out that not all crimes get reported. When robbers target drug dealers, the dealers don't call the cops. When a carjacker is shortchanged by a chop shop, he doesn't file a complaint. Instead, they seek revenge. If they don't, they open themselves to further attacks. "If a drug dealer is robbed, he's got to go out and do something about it," Topalli says. "The weak ones get hit and hit until they die."

And so initial tiffs inevitably lead to larger conflicts. If there was a way to intervene sooner, crime just might subside.

Two months after Topalli first met Goldie, he sat down with the carjacker again. The second interview proved even more illuminating than the first. It turns out that the guy Goldie jacked had caught up with him.

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