A tip of the hat to Tip O’Neill


Apologies, I’m sure, are in order, but to paraphrase a great politician of the past era, “all crime is local.”

When I started working for the MPD in crime prevention in 1995, my partner Officer Tom and I set aside several days to just drive around our district. Tom wanted to get me up to speed, and introduced me to many long-standing community members he and previous partners had worked with for the preceding decade. He also introduced me to a couple of brothers the community referred to as the “Bryn Mawr Burglars.”

We knocked on the door of their home, and one brother, Pat, sheepishly answered the door. Tom asked if he’d been a good boy (Pat was in his mid-20s). “Yep, I’m working now,” he answered.

“And where’s your mother?”

“She moved out.”

Turns out the mother couldn’t take living with the two fellows-or was it felons? – any more, and she owned the house.

“We buying it from her,” the other brother said.

Tom winced. He had learned from several years on patrol that all crime is local. “The average burglar lives within 10 blocks of where he burgles,” he’d say in our many safety presentations over the next four years.

In our brainstorming sessions in the squad car back then, we agreed that we had nothing to gain by raising people’s crime fears. But the only way people could take steps to reduce that fear and reduce the opportunity of becoming a victim was to face facts. And these two very local facts had caused fear long enough in Bryn Mawr. If Pat and Mike bought the house, the wave of burglaries the neighborhood had experienced probably wouldn’t let up.

However, this isolated case perfectly illustrates why the MPD counts on local partnerships. In fact, the extremely local partnerships we have with block club leaders and neighborhood associations are absolutely critical. If all crime is local, then certainly all crime solutions are local.

It turns out that the burglary wave didn’t continue in Bryn Mawr. After their arrests, the neighborhood posted the brothers’ mug shots in the Bugle. Where we now often hold “Sex Offender Notification” meetings in the community, Bryn Mawr had conducted its own “Burglar Notification” campaign. And the boys’ mother sold the house to someone else.

A couple years ago, I was challenged about Tom’s statement regarding burglars’ 10-block “comfort zone.” By then, I’d repeated it time and again in my own presentations. Fortunately, I was able to do some massive number-crunching for all city crimes, comparing the home address of those we caught to the incident location for which we arrested them.

Turns out the average zone for arrested burglars that year was about 11 and a half blocks. When you consider that we make arrests in a discouragingly low percentage of all reported burglaries – and in many cases the victim has a pretty good idea who did it (e.g., the boyfriend that just got kicked out and, oh, the only thing stolen was some personal effect of the girlfriend that only the boyfriend would know where it was) but couldn’t prove it to our satisfaction – then the border of this comfort zone is probably much closer to their homes than we can prove.

I already know what you are thinking: “How far do robbers and drug dealers live from their crimes?”

Hey, this is supposed to be a regular column. I can’t tell you this all at once!

The intent of this column is to talk frankly about crime. But I won’t wrap up a column without cataloguing, as much as can fit, the various solutions we’ve discovered that work to reduce crime. If it’s true that all crime is local, than you must also conclude, as I have after over 10 years in this business, that there’s really no such thing as a truly random crime. If crime isn’t truly random, then to a large degree its time and location can be predicted, and measures can be taken to prevent and deter potential crimes and reduce the impact of crimes that do take place.

You’re now thinking, “OK, not every last crime is local.” I’ll also look at, among other topics, the conundrums of identity theft – sometimes identities are stolen a great distance from the victim’s neighborhood – and “commuter criminals” who’ve chosen to bike, bus or carpool to their place of business, so to speak. They are actually the exception that proves the rule, but the bulk of all crimes have a local component and, I repeat, a local solution.