7-2-2007 Zero tolerance

Yesterday we got to chortling about the time when the blockhead that used to live across the street called the cops on us for doing something as unthinkable as lighting firecrackers on the 4th of July. What were we thinking?

Yeah, Officer Oswald showed up, acted very professionally, but demanded that we hand over all of our illegal fireworks. Always making with that Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared, I had previously split my explosive cache into two piles in anticipation of such an armed intrusion upon our humble holiday pyrotechnics display. She took possession of exactly half of my exploding playthings, and I made some ill-advised crack about how her nephew would probably enjoy them later on that night. She quickly put that notion to bed.


Anywho, as she was securing my ill-begotten fireworks in the trunk of her police cruiser, the offending blockhead was sitting on his porch and looking all pleased with himself. I made a motion with my hand that most closely resembles one of those obligatory prehensile moments practically every boy-on-girl porno film includes, and the big bad, hulking softball pro leapt to his feet, rushed to the officerís side and whined ďI donít want any trouble.Ē

The sight of him at that very moment would embarrass a three-legged poodle.

Darkness fell, and, as with every 4th of July, the explosions reverberating throughout the city made one appreciate what D-Day must have sounded like for those who made it happen. And when the holiday gets to that fevered pitch, the police cannot respond to the astronomical amounts of fireworks-related complaints they typically receive. So, at that point, my goal, my newfound mission in life was to make certain that the offending blockhead should be rendered completely deaf by midnight. And that I did. I even asked him if he wanted to have at it for a spell with clenched fists, but being that he was a mere half hamster trapped in a giantís body, he chickened out.

I knew it.

Now, near as I can tell, some guy swilling fermented weeds by the bucketful and putting a match to scores of illegal fireworks is a nuisance crime at best. That is, assuming a bottle rocket doesnít set the neighbors roof on fire, or a smoke bomb doesnít find itself wedged in somebodyís teeth. Iím sure if the cops did show up and found me at four times the legal limit and with M-80s duct-taped to the kitten, theyíd find something in the criminal code by which to put me out of my revelry and misery for a few hours. Something about being a danger to myself, I suppose. Although, I imagine itís probably a felony in most peopleís minds to strap a homemade bomb vest onto a cuddly kitty. Well, enough with the self-incrimination bit.

The point is, explosions on the 4th of July are to be expected, and should be overlooked for at least that night. The way I look at is, if the guy across the street is drunk enough to melt the paint off my bike with his breath alone, while simultaneously cavorting with all sorts of bombs imported from the Orient, Iím pulling up an imported plastic chair in anticipation of a few fingers flying every which way. Now thatís entertainment. Heck, if I liked the guy, I might even pull out the hose and wash the blood from the sidewalk after the medic unit pulled away. Worth the price of admission right?

The problem with the illegal fireworks is that too many people reserve the right to light them for days and nights on end. It is a microcosm of sorts of what plagues those of us that havenít yet thrown in the towel on urban living. When it comes to these nuisance crimes and the like, people absolutely refuse to self-abate.

Thanks completely to the opacity that permeates politics in this smallish city, very many of us have made the claim that not enough is being done to restore, bolster or rejuvenate our neighborhoods. Some seem to think that we are lacking some brick and mortar amenities, while still others believe that a lack of services has accelerated reverse-gentrification in some of our neighborhoods. And whenever gunplay dominates the nightly news, the predictably hysterical get to needlessly magnifying our problems tenfold. Things get blown out of proportion. Yes, some street signs need to be replaced. Yes, street sweepers are a necessity. Yes, some people are carrying concealed firearms. And, yes, sometimes they use them.

But the fact of the matter is, high-profile violent crimes are not unique to Wilkes-Barre.

When tens of thousands of people are living elbow-to-elbow in a couple of square miles, the crime statistics are compiled in some very noticeable ways at times. A shooting outside of a bar upsets the heck out of us, while the murder-suicide in the nearby bucolic reaches does not. When the black guy in the city fires his weapon, all hell breaks loose on local talk radio. But when the white professional from the suburbs does as much, we barely take notice. What is undeniable is that crimes are disproportionally committed in the cities. Thatís the way it is, the way it always has been and the way it always will be. Itís as if itís all a part of the cost of doing urban business. Cities need a hundred police officers or so, while the farther-flung, less populated communities need a cop or two to keep the rabid chipmunks in check. The thing is, if your closest neighbor is too far away to strike with a black market TOW missile, youíre probably never going to feel the need to curse at him, kick him, stomp on him, stab him, shoot at him or smash his gaudy-looking gazing ball.

But in the cities, all bets are off. And thatís because nobody, and I mean nobody, seems very interested in making with the self-abatement routine. Nobody seems to be able to control themselves. Nobody seems interested at all in being a good neighbor. And if we havenít got any good neighbors to speak of, what does that portend for the overall health of the neighborhood, or the city at large?

Now, if weíre going to be adults about it and admit that the occasional violent crime is going to occur in relentless, but alternating fluxions, if we accept that some of us are simply bad apples and prone to doing really bad things, then what can we do as residents to make our own neighborhoods more livable and more appealing to the young families we so openly covet?

Iím thinking we need to better behave ourselves. I think we need to start doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. We need to ask ourselves, ďAm I a good neighbor?Ē

Iím never happy to learn that some horrible crime happened somewhere in this city, but as a long-time resident, Iím more concerned about problem properties, nuisance crimes, and the growing plethora of people who continually and blatantly ignore our laws, ignore our ordinances and disrupt our neighborhoods in the process. Problem properties and nuisance crimes rob our citizens of the quality of life they deserve. They are not the exceptions that the shootings are, they are the rule that we have deal with day-in and day-out. With that said, itís certain that the higher-profile crimes create the perception that city living is untenable at best. But only so much can be done, and none of it proactive, when societal decay personified comes to town sporting a concealed firearm.

I donít live near the White House Tavern, therefore it is not on my radar screen. Others do live near it and want it shuttered by tonight. Godspeed to them. What continues to be a brightly glowing dot on my radar screen are the seemingly growing numbers of people in my neighborhood who defiantly do what they pleaseÖneighbors, elected officials, police and code enforcement be dammed.

For instance, ATV riders are not supposed to be using my tiny street as their personal drag strip. But they do it every single day. And theyíve had a few run-ins with the cops on occasion. Thereís a constant cat-and-mouse game going on here. Yet, even when caught red-handed, they maintain possession of those noisy machines to terrorize us on another day. Usually, the very next day. Now, I majored in Hotel & Restaurant Management and not Criminal Justice, but canít we just dial up a flatbed and have these ATVs hauled away, rather than giving the marauding riders a stern earful and a less than heartfelt ĎHave a nice day?í Why are the habitual offenders from the same addresses allowed to ignore the laws in perpetuity? Why havenít those machines been impounded already?

The logic escapes me.

Then weíve got the leash laws. Iím guessing, but Iíd have to say that the word ďleashĒ is Greek to too many of my less-appreciated neighbors. Why is it that we have to either arm ourselves, or take an alternate route when walking to the nearby store simply because the trailer park escapees down on the corner totally ignores the leash laws? Why is it that just about everybody on this street has been chased by and, or knocked down by two loose Rotweillers that just about outweigh us? Why?

Well, thatís because the white trash on the corner knows that Animal Enforcement does not exist before 8 am and after 4 pm, or on weekends. So, rather than being life-flighted out of here, we go out back and walk down Butler Street. Itís a couple of extra steps, but it sure beats being mauled by those loose dogs. Iíve complained to a city official, but he seems powerless to do anything about it. If the animal enforcement guy is not allowed overtime pay, our only other possible course of action is to call the police when the dogs get to growling at every passerby. But, even with a quick response, the dogs will be spirited back into their basement dungeon long before the police arrive on the scene. So, why bother? Why add to their already weighty burden when theyíve got bigger criminals to fry? Why waste their time by having them chase after shadows? Why? Well, because I donít want some hundred pound dog latching onto any of my grandchildren, or anybody elseís for that matter.

Itís an ongoing problem, the city has tried and failed to rectify the situation, and it persists. Itís a waiting game at this point. Weíre waiting for the day when one of those dogs does not heed itís ownerís call and finally clamps down on somebody with those powerful-looking jaws. As for myself, Iím prepared for that fateful day.

Extent left arm. Dog clamps down on left arm. Right arm inserts readily-available scuba knife into dogís neck. Done.

Then weíve got the pool ordinances. Correct me if Iím wrong, but arenít these pools supposed to be fenced-off so that small children cannot find their way into them and make with the face-down floating routine? Well, weíve got two unsecured pools within 50 yards of this keyboard, one of which is frequented by unsupervised children and toddlers on a daily basis. Now, you could ask yourself how we benefit by passing ordinances, but never enforcing them. Or, you could ask yourself why so many of my less than self-abating neighbors feel so completely at ease with picking and choosing what they will, or will not obey. If itís illegal to have antsy killer dogs roaming free, and if itís illegal to have completely unfettered access to pools, why does it occur in plain view on the side of one of our busiest thoroughfares? Why? Because we lack the manpower, and possibly, the will to police that which ought not and need not be policed by the police.

If businesses are charged by law to remove grafitti within 30 days, how is it that I've been treated to the same paint markings, the same exact gibberish, every time I've looked out of the kitchen window for two long years now?

Short of permanently assigning a street sweeper to this street, there is nothing the City can do about this most recent phenomenon of ours: the hordes of unattended children using our street as their playground and leaving a daily trail of debris behind them. But, according to the people that live opposite our local playground, and opposite Dan Flood school, the younger kids can no longer play there safely since the Mexican gangs have co-opted those two sites for their own personal amusement. Amusement that includes, but is not limited to, foul language, fireworks, graffiti, underage drinking, drug use, sexual acts, vandalism and threats of violence to any nearby property owner who protests too loudly. Supposedly, as per some rarely-enforced ordinance, those properties are off-limits after dark. Yet, brazen idiocy is the Ďnorm long after dark.

I know a guy who lives directly across from the Dan Flood parking lot on the backside of the property. And heís been waging a running verbal battle with a group of Mexican teenagers who deface the property, blast music, use drugs and generally raise hell every night. Heís been told the school district intends to fence off the area in direct response to this unabated nonsense. When I asked him why he hasnít called the cops, being the decent guy that he is, basically, he said he didnít want to be a prick about it.

Well, being as I am, and being whatís going on in this urban den of ours, I say itís about time that everyone involved gets all prickly and such about enforcing the law to the very letter of the law. We need to invariably enforce that which we deemed to be so damned important when we first put the gavel to the table. We lack not for ordinances, what we lack is a commitment to enforcing those ordinances, no matter what. If weíre ever going to create neighborhoods that would be the envy of all others, I think we need a zero tolerance approach for the foreseeable future. If itís on the books, I want it enforced, no matter how trivial it may seem to some.

No, we donít want or need a police department that comes off as heavy-handed all the time. If a couple of Latino kids are sharing a quart of beer in a parking lot, itíd probably be preferable to have the cops confiscate the suds and give the kids a pointed sermon instead of hauling them away for no discernable purpose. The compassion, the public relations leeway should be commensurate with the severity of the crime. If I saw such a thing unfolding, I wouldnít even think of calling the police. Kids will be, and still need to be kids on occasion.

But I find it beyond troubling that practically everyone seems to understand that they can pick and choose from the lengthy laundry list of ordinances which ones they will obey. And I will say this for my recently transplanted neighbors from well south of that sieve of a border of ours, they may not fully understand the language of their newly-adopted home, but they sure do understand how to do home repairs after dark, thereby doing away with the need for a building permit. And Iím left to wonder why if I can see this going on as frequently as it does, why no one employed by the City can see it. Do they see it? At times, it doesnít seem like it.

The thing is, if people absolutely refuse to self-abate, someone, or some entity is going to have to force them to self-abate. And that someone, that entity, would have to be the City of Wilkes-Barre. I said it when former Mayor Tom McGroarty was in charge, and Iím saying it again: Our Community Action Team, then the Neighborhood Impact Team, is the one city department that should be working lots of overtime. Plenty. Thatís less of a criticism on my part than it is a final cry for a renewed vigilance, a more focused eye being paid to seemingly minute details.

I liken this to a business with long-sagging sales. When sales are down, it is in everyoneís best interest for the management of said business to start cracking the whip in a very theatrical manner. When things are seriously askew, everything is important, and nothing, no matter how seemingly minor in nature, should be overlooked. If itís wrong, itís wrong. If it doesnít match what the employee handbook states, then it has to be done away with. No exceptions. No degrees of separation. No wiggle room. And no bogus indignation inconsonant with the common good should be tolerated. Stringent enforcement is clearly called for.

Zero tolerance, some call it.

As far as Iím concerned, Wilkes-Barreís sales, itís stock, if you will, have been down for quite some time now. With that said, the city has obviously improved by leaps and bounds during the past four years. And with that momentum in place, now, more than ever, I think we need to crack that proverbial whip, to pay even greater attention to detail. Significant economic investment is happening all around us. The bricks and mortar are still being delivered. Long-empty storefronts are being filled, albeit, at a turtleís excruciatingly painful pace. Progress seems to finally be afoot in earnest. And Iím filled with optimism.

Now all thatís left to do is to pay strict attention to those niggling quality of life issues that might seem minor in nature to those of us that have been duly charged to right this cityís long-flagging fortunes, but can be constant irritants to those us that are still along for the ride. I should say, those of us that stubbornly chose not to jump on the overbooked White Flight Express to the relative comfort and safety of the suburbs. At this point, turning a blind eye to profligate behavior is seriously akin to taking a giant step backwards.

And I donít want to go backwards anymore.

Themís my thoughts.