The Starting Five, 2/3/2015

 

At the end of August, Mayor Greg Ballard announced the

city of Indianapolis was filing public nuisance lawsuits against the owners of

a pair of apartment complexes, where it appears the chances of getting a good

night's sleep are close to zero.

According to the lawsuits, there have been more than

3,200 police runs and over 200 public health and code enforcement

investigations at these places, whose names, the Esmeralda and Heather Ridge, make

a half-hearted attempt at evoking a quality of life their residents can only

begin to imagine. I doubt leases at these people traps make mention of assault,

armed robbery or homicide, but all have, at one time or another, turned out to

be part of the package.

"It is absolutely critical to our efforts to

combat crime and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods that we crack

down on negligent property owners," said Mayor Ballard in a press release.

"We must hold property owners accountable for draining unnecessary public

resources and damaging our communities."

To which I — and I'm

sure a lot of people with the bad luck to be living anywhere near one of these

toxic hives — say, "Bravo!"

The mayor could have pussy-footed

around this issue. He could have gone on doing what is typical in cases like

this, and continued sending cops and other first

responders to these places, one desperate call at a time.

He could, in other words, have continued to place the

responsibility for the bad behavior in these places on the heads of each and

every perpetrator.

This, however, would have ignored the forest for the

trees.

But this is the way things often go in America. We'll

scratch and scratch at a rash, rather than go after the poison that causes it. That's

because our notion of freedom is based on a rather narrow interpretation of personal

responsibility. This is fine up to a point: If somebody attacks someone else,

there's nothing for it but to bring the attacker in. That much is obvious.

Not so obvious is when trouble is perpetuated because

people — in this case, landlords — are, in effect, enabling bad

behavior by turning a blind eye on their properties. They may claim they can't

be held responsible for the actions of their tenants. Yet bad things keep

happening. A pattern emerges.

Indianapolis is right to pin the blame on these

donkeys. As the mayor suggests, the city needs to take action on behalf of the

other people in the neighborhoods that are inevitably affected by being in

close proximity to these landlords' cynicism.

This makes me wonder if other, seemingly intractable,

problems might not benefit from a similar approach. Think of what follows as a

modest proposal.

This year, the incidence of gun violence among

teenagers in the city has been a cause for alarm. In many instances, observers see

a connection between the alienation leading many of these kids to violence and

chronic high school drop-out rates. "In some

ways, it is easier for a child in 46218 [zip code] to get a gun than an

education," U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett told a

gathering at the Eastern Star Church last February.

Then, after an outbreak of violence at Circle Centre

Mall, Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said: "We're going to look at

making parents accountable, making them come and pick up their children. And if

they do any damage, and if there's a way, then we're going to hold them

accountable in court."

Surely, if we can throw the book at landlords for

turning their buildings into criminal hot spots, we can hold parents

responsible for things their children do, especially when those children are

doing things with guns.

This means bumping up against another version of what

we like to call freedom — and challenging what we mean by personal

responsibility. Anyone who wants to be a parent is free to do so in our

society. But by now we know that just as some apartment complexes can be called

socially toxic, the same can be said about what we (all too) loosely call

families.

The trouble is that while a great deal is at stake

every time another person is brought into this world, that person's parents,

unless they commit the grossest forms of abuse or neglect, are accountable to

nobody.

That's freedom for you.

But what if every time a kid was caught committing a

crime with a gun, a parent paid a real price? What if when a kid dropped out of

school, a parent was penalized?

Howls of protest would arise. People would chafe at

what they would surely call government's heavy hand. But more kids might do

better in school. Some streets and neighborhoods might even be safer.

And we might learn to think of these things as a kind

of freedom, too.

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