Down These Mean Equestrian Trails
Murder was up in 2002. Many cities reported more homicide in 2001, and definite increases have shown up in California. In Oakland, murders topped 100 for the first time in a decade; Los Angeles murders jumped 25%, to over 600.
Who’s to blame? The experts, left to right, are in agreement: “youths..and gangs,” a New York Times roundup of crime experts reported (January 17, 2004)..
Police, community leaders, and news reporters declared Oakland’s “alarming homicide” increase this year mostly involves “young people” in “their teens and early twenties,” as one typical Oakland Tribune story reported. On the left, Pacific News Service’s Youth Communications Team (including the local publications YO! Youth Outlook, The Beat Within, Silicon Valley De-Bug, Afghan Journal, Poetry Television, and Roaddawgz) held an “Intergenerational Forum on Rising Bay Area Youth Violence.” The forum notice stated: “After years of steady decline, why did the Bay Area’s murder toll suddenly explode in 2002? How did the optimism and prosperity of the late 1990s dissolve into this wave of violence and desperation? Will it spread? Why are the victims and perpetrators so young?”
Likewise, the California Wellness Foundation and Choices for Youth released a “youth violence scorecard” in November 2002. “Study says teen violence rampant in county,” read the Pasadena Star-News November 20 headline. “This is an epidemic,” said Choices for Youth director Laurie Kappe. Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Ronald Bergmann urged “aggressive curfew and truancy enforcement” to take “young victims” and “possible suspect(s) off the streets.” Deputy City Atty. Tony Koutris said, the problem of kids carrying guns “is overwhelming.”
As is the depressing rule, the rush to judgment did not include careful examination of available facts. When I obtained murder figures directly from police departments and a media search, I found a clear pattern: the “victims and perpetrators” in Oakland’s and LA’s 2002 murder surges are not youths. In fact, they are much older than in previous years.
The Oakland Police Department’s homicide tabulation for January through October 2002, and Oakland Tribune reports for November, provide ages for 102 victims and 37 suspects. Only three murder suspects are teenagers under age 20. One, a 14 year-old boy, was not charged after police determined he stabbed his mother’s lover to defend her from being beaten. Final figures for 2002 showed only three of the 78 murder suspects in Oakland’s entire county (Alameda) in 2002 were youths, far below the average of 10 to 12 arrested in previous years. Further, only one third of the suspects in Oakland homicides in 2002 are under age 25, compared to a normal average of half. While 11 teenagers were murdered in Oakland this year, only one suspect in their killings was another teen. The other suspected murderers of teen victims were considerably older, ranging in age from 22 to 30.
Likewise, reports on the LAPD's Web page detailing 300 homicides showed that even amid the increase in murders this year, the number of juveniles committing homicide is down sharply. Fewer L.A. juveniles were arrested for murder in 2002 than the 49 arrested last year, and far fewer than the average of 150 arrested annually in the 1990s, final crime figures showed. (Meanwhile, murder arrests of adults ages 35-49 soared). The relatively low number of juvenile arrests does not stem from aggressive curfew enforcement. The LAPD's own and other studies show that curfews don't reduce crime or protect youths. In fact, police reports show that 60 L.A. juveniles have been murdered so far this year - most, apparently, by grown-ups. The suspects listed on the LAPD Web page accused of murdering youths under age 18 all are adults. As in Oakland, final 2002 figures showed L.A. murder suspects, overall, are considerably older than in the past. In the 1990s, two-thirds of the murder suspects were under age 25; in 2002, fewer than half are.
Why on earth would all these authoritative entities—especially progressive groups that normally deplore “the criminalization of youth”-- issue alarming claims of “rising youth violence” and “explod(ing)” killings by the “young” when nothing of the sort is occurring? More disturbing, PNS’s youth publications are not the only progressive interest misrepresenting young people as frighteningly violent. The liberal Sentencing Project’s Marc Mauer criticized California’s “Three Strikes (and You’re Out) law for contributing to a rapid aging of the California prison system” by funneling “a growing share of resources to an aging population whose crime production was already on the decline.” Mauer’s October 2001 report declared that crime is better controlled by imprisoning young people, the “known offenders.”
But this isn’t true, either. The aging of the prison population isn’t due to Three Strikes laws, but to a simple fact: in the last two decades, felony arrests plummeted among younger Californians while skyrocketing among older ages. Among Californians over age 40, there were 92,000 felony arrests, 9,000 new felons imprisoned, and 27,000 parole violators returned to prison in 2001--five times more than in the 1980s. Nearly all of California’s over-40 prison population was sentenced for offenses committed within the last three years. Meanwhile, arrests of California teenagers for felonies plummeted from 148,000 in 1980 to 106,000 in 2001. That’s why the prison population is aging—and it will age more when California’s latest urban murderers rejoin the orange-suited.
Worse still, Justice Policy Institute president Vincent Schiraldi’s September 16, 2002, Los Angeles Times opinion column argued that all teenagers, like the severely mentally retarded, are innately amoral, unreasoning, and unable to control their violent impulses. Why did Schiraldi resurrect pseudo-scientific prejudices against adolescents that have been debunked by decades of cognitive performance studies? To argue against executing youths--a noble liberal cause. Why did Mauer depict youths as criminals and ignore the two-decade explosion in middle-aged offending? To score a point against California’s draconian Three Strikes law. Why did Wellness and Choices for Youth disgorge yet another inflammatory “youth violence scorecard” certain to pin California’s 24% increase in murder in 2002 on teenagers? To win support for after-school and remedial programs for underprivileged kids.
Amid the rampant exploitation of the ever-fearsome image of “youth violence” to bolster political agendas and funding for the police, agencies, and liberal programs, a vital reality was lost: California’s new crime crisis is not youth. Rather, hundreds of thousands of parolees from California’s 1980s and 1990s prison boom are being released with little rehabilitation, education, job training, or addiction treatment. Older parolees (not new criminals) comprised 60% of the 67,000 Californians sent to prison in 2002. Aging drug abusers unable to find a place in society, not teens, are the new crime wave.
And, as liberal groups should be well aware of by now, scaring the public and policy makers that killer adolescents are raging out of control is not likely to gain benign investment in the future generation, but drastic anti-youth crackdowns, heavier policing of young and minority populations, and tougher prison terms. If that lesson wasn’t clear before, it should have been after Proposition 21 passed in California in March 2000, pushed by a new fear of both suburban teens and urban gangs.
In 1999, as prison, law enforcement, political, academic, and news media interests grappled with schemes to keep the public frightened in an era of plummeting crime, there appeared on the front page of America’s largest urban daily the most dangerously silly story on youth I saw in a decade of press excess. “GANGS,” breathed the Los Angeles Times’ April 18, 1999, cover feature, had invaded the “south Orange County haven.”
The law-and-order lobby faced a formidable problem. In the late 1990s, real urban gang violence had plunged. From their early-decade peaks, murder rates among Los Angeles’s black, Hispanic, and Asian youths fell by 85%, reaching three-decade lows by 1999. They would decline another 13% in 2000. Had he not been murdered in 1996, gangsta-emeritus Tupac Shakur would have composed very different rhymes about a Los Angeles of 1999 and 2000, where only one black youth per month was arrested for murder--down from one every 80 hours in 1990. Fewer mobile-cam homicide scenes appeared on evening news. The increasingly detached larger public and its fickle news media lost interest in far-away inner city problems.
As fears waned that mobs of ghetto “superpredators” would pillage pristine suburbs, The Times, along with other major media and authorities, cranked up a relentless crusade to convince suburban folks that they now were in dire peril from their own murderous, drugged-out kids. The new fear agenda declared that every downtown evil now menaced tract-home paradise--only its agents were no longer downtown kids, but paradise’s own pampered spawn. And things would only get worse. As “chilling” (the press’s workhorse adjective) as the ubiquitous youth menace was now, police chief after politician after expert intoned to the cameras and in print, it would all get worse, because the teenage population was growing.
Hence, the creation of the suburban teen killer. And what better setting than South Orange County, California, one of the whitest, most conservative, largest areas of concentrated wealth in the Milky Way? New house prices top half a million, annual household income averages $100,000. The private San Joaquin Tollway ripped through the south hills to give exurban upscalers quick Lexus access to John Wayne Airport (hard right on Douglas MacArthur Boulevard) without grubbing it out with restless masses on Interstate 5. Entire walled cities such as Coto de Caza sprouted in the coastal scrub hills where generations of gated, guarded, golfing cherubs could grow up with no more awareness of downtown Santa Ana (the Latino-dwelling county seat 20 minutes up I-5) than of the Tijuana maquiladores where their tech toys were assembled.
Now, “the specter of gangs” had invaded the richest right-wing citadel, the Times reported in Scream 3 tone. Reporter Bonnie Harris’s elephantine story exhaled “gang” dozens of times. Now, truly, no place is safe. The folks in Orange County’s posh “suburban refuge,” the “sanctuary” where “crime is so rare” that “there have been just three killings in 10 years,” couldn’t comprehend the terror unleashed on their “clean, safe, kid-friendly streets” by... “gangs,” Harris declared.
What chicanery. It turned out that was three more murders than anyone blamed on South Hills gangs. Harris’s story cited no Richie Rich G-ridin’, unless you count a couple of “minor scrapes” by five James-Dean retro teens who called themselves the “Slick 50’s” and dressed like “Jim Stark, teenager from a good family” (in Warner Bros. famous Rebel poster from 1954). But wait--several Slick ‘50’s were present when a stabbing occurred outside a party 10 months earlier, back in summer 1998. The victim had long since recovered. The attacker, a 21-year-old, was not a “Slick.”
Details. Four “Slick 50’s,” denying gangstaship, politely posed on a verdant hilltop for the story’s cover picture. Precisely the point: if these sweetly grinning whiteboys straight outa suburbia wore matching red-white jackets and called each other special home-names, it was just a matter of time before the Ridgeline Parkway Crips and Pacific Coast Highway Bloods commenced to blastin’ Fashion Island and the Newport Yacht Harbor with the nine-mill’er. This was the crazed evil-kid proliferation logic dispensed by the press and the experts it quoted: if one or two of them can be, all of them can be, and if all of them can be, all of them are.
Not even the most compelling facts could dent the scare propaganda. Down these mean equestrian trails of Orange County’s upscale burgs (Dana Point, Lake Forest, Aliso Viejo, Mission Viejo, the Laguna tri-cities, and San Juan Capistrano) where half a million people dwell, ONE youth was arrested for murder during the entire decade--back in 1993. Nor were things getting worse; far from it. In 1979, 15 white youths (throughout this book, “white” refers to non-Hispanic whites of European origin) were arrested for homicide. No year since even approached half that peak. In fact, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 (two, zero, zero, and zero white-kid murder arrests, respectively) represented decades-long lows. Back in the 1970s, 5,000 Orange County white kids were popped for felonies every year. In 2000, 1,310. Short of perfection, it’s hard to imagine how white suburban kids--and, against much steeper socioeconomic odds, black, Latino, and Asian youths as well--could be acting any better.
No matter. In a crusade identical to the 1940s “Sleepy Lagoon” and “zoot suit” media scare campaigns against Mexican youth--now admitted to have been a bigoted travesty demonizing every Hispanic teen as a gangster and ballooning rare incidents into proof of savagery, as historian Carey McWilliams’ 1948 essay, “The Pattern of Violence” detailed--the 1999 press and big institutions lusted for young blood.
The more crime plummeted--Orange County’s rate fell a staggering 44% for violent offenses and 63% for property offenses from 1990 to 2000--the more frantically feverish the police and press fear campaign became. A national study by the Center on Media and Public Affairs found that as homicide rates fell 20% from 1992 to 1996, coverage of murder stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC news rose seven-fold. In Southern California as elsewhere, the smallest youth transgression ballooned into an “alarming new crisis” accentuated with inflamed “expert” commentary. “Hundreds” of “gun incidents” in Orange County schools! (Nearly all involved BBs or cap pistols). “Disturbing” Fullerton High School student cheating! “Alarming” vandalism by four teens! Drugged-out teenage wastoids wrecking the peace of pastoral mountain-town Ojai (where, the story failed to mention, an enraged 44-year-old recently chased his wife and three kids down a lane, gunning down each and then himself). The toll from the Times’ barrage of page-one youth-gone-wild megafeatures, including the south county “gang” scourge: 0 dead, 1 injury, heavy casualties to rural mailboxes.
But don’t be fooled, press alarmists hinted: the very lack of visible crime meant there must be a huge, subterranean, therefore even scarier youth barbarity lurking under the tranquil surface. After all, quiet Littleton, Colorado; Springfield, Oregon; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Santee, California, were blindsided by towhead school shooters packing heavy steel. Capitalizing on the new fear, books stuffing psychology shelves in job lots pronounced suburban teens a “generation in crisis,” “a tribe apart,” an “anticultural” mob perpetrating unheard-of savageries in knotty-pined rec rooms, heroin lanes, and parents’ king-sized beds. That this suburban youth-crisis epidemic showed up nowhere in morgue, hospital, drug, murder, school dropout, crime, pregnancy, AIDS, school testing, TV-gazing, or any other standard index of trouble cooled no flaming jets. In the 1990s, it became acceptable to expand the rarest teenage anecdote into an emblem of mass generational wastage, to manufacture statistics and recycle them endlessly until no one knew where they originated, to just make things up.
In the last category, Orange County’s news media relentlessly whipped up fears that a Littleton school massacre perpetrated by darkside student gunners “could happen here”--and if it could happen, it would happen. Throughout the local media’s crash crusade to frighten parents and students in spring 1999, not one expert or news report I’m aware of mentioned the most crucial fact of all: no one could remember anyone being shot to death in or around a school in the entire history of Orange County, a densely populated megalopolis of 2.8 million, a majority of whose adolescents, like all of California’s, were Latino, black, or Asian.
Can IT Happen Here?
The real question about the Columbine school shootings is not how two teens could become so murderous, but how rare school rampages are compared to those elsewhere in society. My incomplete count just of two dozen gun massacres by enraged adults 30 and older (an age group media-quoted “experts” assure us is safe) in the year after Columbine showed 81 dead and 40 wounded, five times more than in all school shootings in 1998-99. The second question is how American adulthood, its intelligentsia, and its leadership with virtual unanimity could ignore the gun massacres by their own age peers and instead anoint two singularly crazed kids as poster boys for the entire younger generation.
Instead, Columbine kicked off an avalanche of stupid press tricks. Take the two BIG QUESTIONS (extensions of the if-one-kid’s-a-killer-all-kids-are-killers logic), endlessly bandied by national and local media and their experts:
1. How could such a tragedy happen in a nice, suburban town where “things like this are not supposed to happen?”
2. If it happened in THAT nice town, it WILL happen in YOUR nice town!
How could grownups seriously engage such numbskullery? First, where is mass-victim gun slaughter supposed to happen? Research on mass murderers, both the serial-killer and blaze-of-glory versions, suggest that if such a rare killing is going to occur, towns like Littleton and West Paducah would be exactly the places you’d expect. The dissed white, usually suburban or rural male, not the inner-city youth, is the prime suspect for a rampage. By their melodramatic, absurd implication that violence does not happen in suburbs, the press and authorities indulged an open racism designed to scare suburban communities into believing that inner-city evils had arrived at their door--at a time when suburbs have never been safer and the rage killings in question were distinctly suburban phenomena to begin with.
Second, as to the question, “Can it happen here?” The answer is: of course it can. Murder can happen anywhere where there are two people, one of whom is capably inclined. Genesis reports only six people on earth and already one homicide.
To answer the question more precisely, I attempted to calculate the odds of a school killing in Orange County, California, where I lived for five years. In an article for OC Weekly during the months of post-Columbine press shrieking that demented students must be poised to open fire everywhere, I analyzed all gun incidents in the county in the previous decade.
There were few incidents, none fatal. On June 2, 1988, a 23-year-old transient armed with an AK-47, 60 rounds of ammunition, and a bayonet perched on the roof of an Anaheim elementary school, motive unknown. When police arrived, he lumbered off. Unaware of his arsenal, pupils gleefully helped cops chase and apprehend him. The gun was not loaded and no shots were fired. Anaheim’s scare proved tragically prophetic. Four hundred miles north and six months later, on January 17, 1989, another drifter who police said “hated everyone” sprayed a Stockton elementary schoolyard with AK-47 fire, killing five pupils and wounding 30. Yet, the 10th anniversary of the Stockton school massacre, the worst school killing in California history, passed in January 1999 unnoticed in a state and national media otherwise obsessed with school shootings. The white killer was the wrong age (26). The dead and injured children were the wrong hue (Southeast Asian).
Much effort and help from the researcher at the University of California, Irvine’s, library uncovered the only school shooting by a student in Orange County. It also occurred 10 years earlier. True to form, it was perpetrated by a white kid. On October 5, 1989, a 15-year-old blue-trenchcoated army-hatted self-styled “Dirty Harry With Acne” took 36 drama students at Anaheim’s Loara High School hostage with a shotgun and pistol for 40 minutes, winging one student. Police then talked him into surrendering over the phone. The wounded boy told reporters he thought at first the whole episode was “intended as farce,” it being drama class, and before lunch. Classmates suggested he rethink that hypothesis, this time considering the bullet hole in his jaw.
After a media search, interviews with school security officers, study of National School Safety Center reports, and reader tips, that was the only case I could find of a local school shooting that caused any bloodletting. As for student-perp murders at school by gun, shiv, or lead-filled pompom, zero.
Now, the Hard Science...
So, the question hysterically masticated by the media--can a school killing like Littleton’s happen here?--can be answered systematically for Orange County. Figures from the Department of Health Services’ “Injury Tables, California,” indicate that in Orange County in the past decade, 5,000 people were shot, of which 3,000 (like the Loara victim) lived after doctoring and 2,000 joined America’s massive roster of firearms fatality. That doesn’t include the true Orange County’s rugged Second Amendment bullet perforees who guzzled a pint of whisky and gouged the slug out with red-hot Bowie knives.
Next fact: there are 200,000 students in Orange County middle and high schools. Assume, on average, four in five of them grace school with their presence daily, 180 days per year, eight hours per day. That means a total of 1% of the county’s total waking and sleeping person-hours (2.5 million people times 8,760 hours in a year) consist of teenage students at school (200,000 students times 1,440 school hours times 80% attendance). The latter only seemed a lot longer.
So, if a student had equal odds of being shot at school as any other Orange County dweller anywhere else, we should have seen 50 shootings, including 20 gun deaths, at Orange County schools in the last decade (1% of 5,000 total gun casualties and of 2,000 gun deaths). If school gundowns were that routine, ironically, the sensation-driven mass media would relegate them to briefs on page A26, next to the local child-abuse deaths.
The true school firearms toll in the last 10 years: one injury, no deaths.
Now we can use 10 years of data to answer definitively the question the Los Angeles Times and other Big Media have hurled hysterically for two years: Yes, IT (a student shooting at a school) CAN happen here. But a gun injury or death is 50 TIMES more likely to occur anywhere EXCEPT a school.
Put another way, 1 million students have passed through Orange County middle and high schools since 1988. Of these, one fired a shot into a human. If all county residents were as safe from gun violence as teenage students in school, we would have had approximately 5,900 fewer dead and wounded from residents’ shootings than we had in the last decade. Orange County would be safer than Stockholm, not more gun-happy than Beirut.
Trouble in Paradise
It would have been pretty simple for the raving crime experts, shrinks, officials, cops, school authorities, and big-circulation dailies and newscasts to just tell us, bottom line, that our kids are safer in school than just about anywhere else. What was their interest in whipping up maximum hysteria?
We can judge their interest in terror by the fact that whip, they did. The local media’s dire drumroll that Littleton-type school slaughter “could happen here” crossed the line from news reporting to manufactured fear. In ping-pong alarmism, the Times front-paged a survey by the Times Orange County Poll showing half of Orange County parents barraged with press hysteria about guns in local schools were--surprise--frightened about guns in local schools.
“I found the numbers on the prevalence of guns in Orange County schools to be quite shocking,” Times Orange County Poll vice president Cheryl Katz hyperventilated in fluent media-speak. The “shocking” numbers may have been pumped up by a suspicious coincidence. The Times Orange County Poll began its survey on April 22, the same day the Times Orange County edition’s front-page story, “OC Schools Log 128 Gun Crimes in 3-Year Span,” ran on page one.
The story reported 63 “gun incidents” in 1995-96, 35 in 1996-97, and 30 in 1997-98. Disappointing. More dismaying for fear interests, the story found, this shrinking number of gun “crimes” mostly involved minor, after-school vandalism with BB or pellet guns. Not one incident of lethal packin’ was mentioned. Actually, Times reporter and story author Jack Leonard readily acknowledged when I called, there wasn’t much of a gun problem in local schools.
Thirty “gun incidents” involving zero casualties among 400,000 students in a year, though lamentable compared to “no gun incidents,” is indeed “shocking”--shockingly few in a county where law enforcement responds to REAL gun violence in a home three times a week and hospitals and coroners receive a bullet-perforated body every other day. Schools boast a remarkable safety record in a decade in which countians suffered 5,000 gunshot casualties in just about every locale but a school.
“I did not use the Littleton incident to sell the Times a poll,” Katz told me when I contacted her for the county’s alternative paper, OC Weekly, to ask about the ethics of the survey. “Rather, we were scheduled to go into the field on that date on an unrelated topic and I added questions on an important national news event that had just taken place. I derived no additional profit from these questions.”
Fine. If the poll’s launching on the day of the Times’ school-gun story was a coincidence, there was plenty of time to quash its dubious validity. However, the Times published the poll’s results five days later, on April 27, in another front-page story, “Parents Fear for Their Children on Campuses.” There was no indication in the story that parents’ fears might have been inflated by the Times itself. In fact, Katz and reporter David Haldane deployed the full array of fear-words: “shocking,” “chilling,” alarmed quotes from fearful parents--none of whose kids had ever seen a gun at school--balanced by zero quotes from the 50% of parents who said they were not fearful.
In his cogent 1986 book, Trouble in Paradise, University of California, Irvine, professor Mark Baldassare, an associate of Katz and founder of the polling firm, wrote that Orange countians’ exaggerated “fear of crime” and apprehension over “a more racially, ethnically, and occupationally diverse population” led to “negative views about schools” and social change. His firm’s latest poll and its spokeswoman’s news hype are a clinic on how professionals contribute to the panics they claim to deplore.
I also got a taste of the public fear the Times, other media, and crime experts have whipped up. Assigned as part of UC Irvine’s Community Surveys seminar (a fine class taught by Baldassare) to lead a focus-group discussion on crime in order to design the Orange County Annual Survey, I asked the two dozen average countians who they pictured as the typical violent criminal lurking to prey on innocent folks--on them, for example.
The citizenry, polite before, erupted. “A 12-year-old gang member who has no conscience about life and death,” a Costa Mesa clerk spat. “A high-schooler or gang member--no value on human life,” shrilled a Santa Ana mother. An African-American grandmother snapped that gangs of “eight-, nine-, ten-year-olds are killing people” in her Westminster neighborhood.
Even “well-dressed and straight-A students, they’re dangerous,” a Fullerton salesman said. “This entire state scares us to death,” said a lawyer, adding that his family was “really sweating it out” in the palmy city of Orange. “When they close down a ghetto area, it’s like squashing cockroaches,” grimaced a Newport Beacher. “If you don’t kill them all, they spread into the community like cancer.”
I asked what proportion of the county’s violent crimes the focus group believed was committed by youths--which I specified as “persons under 18 years old.” A junior college student guessed 40%. “At least 80%,” trumped a dapper Anaheim Hills whitehair. On average, the group believed kids committed two-thirds of the county’s murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults.
(Truth break: county law enforcement records show youths account for 14% of the county’s violent crime arrests and probably less than 10% of its total violent offenses. In the last two decades, a total of one 12-year-old, one 11-year-old, and zero children younger than 11 were arrested for homicide--and none during the 1990s).
Whoa, I thought, these focus-group folks must have taken heavy casualties from brutal gangbangers to harbor such fury. Turned out NONE of them had been victimized personally by a violent juvenile or knew anyone who had been. The closest case: one student said she and boyfriend were once approached by several Latino youths who asked if the couple was “looking at” them. The boyfriend answered, uh, no (this is the recommended answer), and the youths left without incident.
So--if none had been brutalized by pistol packing cherubs, where did these good citizens get their paralyzing fear of youth crime? From newspapers, broadcast news, and police, the group agreed, suddenly displaying some skepticism. “The news puts these people [gang members] in front of us,” one snorted. “They don’t normally show white-collar criminals.” Another said: “They show us the stereotyped criminal. That’s what we’re bombarded with.” Still, residents said they feared youths the most. “It’s not like I go looking around at 12-year-olds that look like they might be in gangs, but you asked who would I be afraid of most, and that would be somebody like that, that you see on the news, that has no conscience or value on life,” the Costa Mesa man said.
A 1994 Los Angeles Times poll found most people cite the news media as their biggest source of information on crime. As will be shown, the nation’s largest urban daily, like other major media and the authorities they quote, wields its vast power irresponsibly. The paper’s news pages dispense an endless barrage of stories painting gangs, drugs, suicide, school mayhem, random slaughter, inner-city thugs, suburban debauchery, values-challenged zombies, drunken menaces, raving stoners, pregnant pubescents, harried parents, and worried experts as the signatures of modern youth.
I wrote Times Orange County columnist Dana Parsons several times to complain about the paper’s formulaic anti-youth negativism. Parsons cordially replied that the paper reported grownups’ misdeeds as well and that readers naturally kept things in perspective. But public opinion surveys do not validate that faith. A 1994 Gallup Poll found the public “has a greatly inflated view of the amount of violent crime committed by people under the age of 18.” Due to “recent news coverage of violent crimes committed by juveniles,” respondents believe juveniles commit 40% of all violent crime (triple the true proportion), engendering “decidedly tough attitudes.” A 1995 study by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, which included Los Angeles media, found that “violence dominates local television news coverage--over half of the stories on youth also concerned violence, while more than two-thirds of the violence stories concerned youth.” A 1996 Rand Corporation study found the public expresses great fear of being personally victimized by a conscience-challenged kid (true odds are about nil). Sixty-eight percent of adults polled by Gallup in April 1999, right after the Columbine shooting, and 66% polled a year later, believed a shooting in their local school was likely. Thirty percent of those responding to the April 2000 Gallup Poll thought “these kinds of shootings” were “very likely” to occur in their communities, while another 36% believed they were “somewhat likely.” (The actual odds: something around 0.0001).
Only one-third correctly understood that a mass shooting was “very unlikely” in their communities. However, the majority’s fears were a reasonable interpretation of the information the news media dispensed.
In 1997, local youth volunteers and I clipped all stories that concerned violent crime from six months (181 issues) of the Times’ Orange County edition. We defined a “violent crime” story as one reporting a homicide, sex offense, robbery, assault (street or domestic), or child abuse; or one which discussed violent crime as a public issue. We classed a story as “youth” if it covered an offender under age 18, “youth gangs,” or “youth violence.” We classified a story as “adult” if it covered an offender 18 or older, domestic violence, or an adult crime issue (Megan’s Law to register convicted sex offenders was the most common). We wound up with a stack of 475 stories covering 302 violent crime incidents producing 412 arrests and 460 victims. In addition, 103 stories concerned violent crime as a public issue.
We found that compared to adults, youths were 3.2 times more likely to be featured in Times violent crime stories than the proportion of violent crime youths commit would warrant. Worse, fully HALF the stories on crime as a public issue featured “youth violence,” six to 10 times more than would be predicted from youths” real contribution to violence and murder tolls!
Do kids commit more horrific crimes justifying more news attention, then? To the contrary: both Times stories and FBI crime-clearance records show that on average, adult violence involves twice as many victims per crime than youth violence. Surprisingly, in a metropolis the media have equated with gang wars and drive-by shootings, white, non-Hispanic adults commit more felony violent crimes (8,032 arrests in L.A. and Orange counties in 2001) than youths of all races put together (5,910). When respective population, crime clearance, and victim numbers are considered, the average white adult aged 18-69 commits more violence than the average youth aged 10-17 (two-thirds of whom are nonwhite)--and that’s assuming police monitor and arrest white adults just as often as youths of color for similar offenses. Yet, when was the last big news feature you saw on “white grownup violence”?
An example of keeping the fear-pot simmering: a 1999 Times Metro banner story fretted that the proportion of gang murders that claimed innocent bystanders rose from 59% in 1996 to 70% in 1998. A “troubling statistic,” the headline read. However, the statistics themselves (which the story didn’t cite) yielded a different interpretation. In 1993, three dozen bystanders were killed in gang murders. That toll fell to 25 in 1996, and 22 in 1998. Suggested media stylebook revision: a subject denoting a smaller quantity of something bad (i.e., bullet-perforated innocent-bystander corpses) does not usually take a negative modifier (e.g., “troubling”).
For the paradox of the press is that if a type of crime is common, it becomes un-newsworthy. The unexpected is news. Thus, a heinous crime by an 11-year-old such as the Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooting is big news because it is unexpected; “children,” by popular stereotype, are supposed to be “innocent.” A similar shooting by an adult is more expected and therefore less news-worthy. While it is ridiculous to think (as the constantly horrified “childhood innocence” believers seem to) that America’s four million 11-year-olds are so rigidly identical that not one murderer could exist among them, statistically this stereotype is accurate; 11-year-olds do commit far fewer killings (three or four a year) than 40 year-olds (150 per year). We are shocked when a young child commits murder because younger kids only rarely kill. Now, how does the press handle the rare murder by an 11-year-old versus the three-a-week murder by a 40 year-old? It turns the picture upside down: the occasional 11-year-old killer is depicted as a symbol of today’s supposedly more violent grade-school generation, while the 40-year-old gunman is treated as an isolated case in no way reflective of middle-agers. Result: the media have transformed the stereotype of 11 year-olds from “innocent” to “murderous” by making one murderer the prototype.
This appalling illogic derives not from any concept of what constitutes “news,” but from the harsher way the media treat society’s officially-designated scapegoats. While it’s not surprising that the press focuses on hyping rare crimes by youths, the problem is that reporters are not content to portray them factually as extremely uncommon, isolated events. Instead, reporters artificially aggrandize their stories by attaching larger significance to them. An isolated incident is linked with another isolated incident months and thousands of miles away to manufacture the image of an “alarming new trend sweeping the young.” The Springfield and Littleton school murders were connected by the media as a continuing “spate” even though they occurred nearly a year apart. The result is that each rare event now becomes super-newsworthy by means of misrepresenting it as commonplace--a pattern, a trend, an “epidemic.” This unethical media tactic is reserved for the purpose of demonizing powerless, unpopular groups. As discussed in Chapter 3, the media do not link more common mass shootings by middle-agers into a “spate” sweeping midlifers; older adults are a powerful group and therefore not subject to demonization.
Laurie Woodruff of the Berkeley Media Studies Center points out that reporters seek to tell a story, typically a melodrama of good versus evil, even if accuracy suffers in the process. The journalists I’ve encountered over the last decade who are uncomfortable with this arrangement and want to report more factual, challenging stories tell me they are stymied by editors’ disinterest. This is where authorities should step in to provide perspective. Today’s media-quotable experts fan fears instead.
For it’s not just editors and reporters, but the academic, institutional, and political authorities they quote, who indulge inflammatory anti-youth bigotries. At a Times forum on crime two years ago, I watched UCI criminologist James Meeker, a self-styled liberal and now Dean of the School of Social Ecology, help Sheriff Mike Carona baselessly hype the youth crime scourge (particularly “roving Asian gangs”). Perhaps the chumminess had something to do with UCI’s warm ties to local cops through gang-tracking research grants. The failure of liberal crime authorities (a few excepted) to make a forceful response to the “youth violence” hoax--in fact, most liberal authorities go along with the myth--has been a major factor in cementing public support for draconian measures like Proposition 21, which liberals claim to oppose.
The press’s and professionals’ terrify-the-suburbs tactics were crucial to the strategies of former Governor Pete Wilson (Republican), Governor Gray Davis (Democrat), prosecutors, and California’s immense California Correctional Officers’ Association (prison guards) lobby to line their pockets and campaign coffers with $5 billion over the next decade via Proposition 21, the so-called “Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act.” Wilson and Prop 21ís backers faced a clear dilemma: they were pushing a lock’em-up initiative state fiscal analysts estimated would bring “unknown major net costs” of “at least hundreds of millions of dollars annually” to state and local governments. Yet, most inconveniently, youth violence was way down, as it had been throughout the 1990s. Led by enormous drops among blacks and Latinos, youth homicide fell by 42% in 1999 to 77% below its 1990 level. Violent crime by youths dropped 6% in 1999 and stood at 25% lower than in the early ‘90s. Juvenile crime declines, which include a 47% drop in felony arrest rates over the last 25 years, were far larger than occurred among adults.
Wilson and initiative backers didn’t mention that, of course. Instead, he warned of a “31% increase” in “serious violent crime” by juveniles in southern Orange County from 1997 to 1998. The juvenile crime leap he cited occurred. It amounted to a whopping 30 more arrests in the south-county’s dozen cities housing 600,000 people--97 youths arrested for violent offenses in 1997, 127 in 1998. For perspective, these same cities reported 2,300 cases of domestic violence, 1,600 involving weapons, by adults in 1998.
The tony tollway towners are safer outdoors than indoors. The suburbs” real “chilling epidemic” is household violence. Police and sheriff’s records show that every week in the rich south hills sanctuaries, two dozen domestic violence calls (most involving weapons) and 100 felonies are logged. Ninety percent of those arrested are adults, including 50 a week cuffed for drug and drinking offenses.
There is murder and mayhem in south Orange County’s moneyed suburbs, true enough, not that the press cares. In a real-death stabbing in 1997, a 36-year-old Mission Viejo mother murdered her infant son. An “alarming trend” trigger to the press, given two other recent parent-suspect child murders in that most opulent city? Uh... no. The killing merited a two-inch Times squib on page 16. (That was princely coverage compared to the one-inch, page-27 sliver afforded a Santa Ana 14-year-old beaten to death and dumped in a ditch by his “jealous” stepfather--that was the coverage in the local paper!). But headlining these killings would have spoiled the press’s shocked-outrage, safe-haven melodrama that there’s no crime and violence in the high-end villes--except when “gangs” invade.
Then came the county’s most shocking tragedy of all. On May 1, a enraged middle-ager deliberately crashed his car into a crowded Costa Mesa preschool playground. A three- and four-year-old were crushed to death, two toddlers were hospitalized in critical condition, and two more children and an adult aide were seriously banged up. The slaughter would have been bloodier still if the car hadn’t rammed a tree and stalled.
Police said the remorseless 39-year-old driver wanted to “execute innocent” little children as revenge for his former girlfriend’s rejection--a motive so gruesome it made Littleton’s deranged trenchcoaters gunning for mean jocks look halfway reasonable in comparison. But politicians, experts, and the national press, hot to profit from fear of teenage school killers, couldn’t get excited about preschoolers mowed down by an alienated white midlifer. The tragedy barely made the bottom-page national briefs and quickly faded from attention.
So much for “caring about kids.” Why are Americans (at least those whose voices command attention) so hostile toward young people and callously indifferent to dead kids whose murders don’t serve their agendas? By way of explanation, imagine that authorities confronted the following fact: Orange County’s white middle-agers murder more people--more kids, in fact--every couple of months than have been killed in the county’s 500,000-student public school system ever (zero, in anyone’s memory). In fact, white, non-Latino adults over age 30 (an age group and social class leading crime experts assure us is harmless) perpetrate far more violent crime in Orange County, in Los Angeles, and in California as a whole than youths of all colors put together. So rapidly have violent crime arrests risen among middle-agers that adults in their 30s now have violence arrest rates equal to high schoolers’. Yet, imagine a politician running on a stop-middle-aged violence platform, a big institution or crime agency issuing a report on aging-white violence, a major-media giant featuring cover/page-one/lead-story series on violent, addicted Anglo 30- and 40-agers ripping up suburbs, terrorizing families, driving California’s felony rates to record highs, and stuffing prisons by the rising tens of thousands.
So, I was delighted to see in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s new Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report the following strongly-worded statements that, without naming names, took the hides off the official and institutional scaremongers. To quote:
Juvenile superpredators are more myth than reality.
As recent arrest trends show, the number of juvenile arrests for violent crimes is unrelated to the size of the juvenile population.
The age group with the greatest increase in violent crime arrest rates is persons in their thirties and forties. No one has argued that there is a new breed of middle-aged superpredator, but the data provide more support for that conclusion than for the concept of a juvenile superpredator.
Media coverage of that astonishing report: nada. Citation of it by media experts: nil.
Realism and fairness will not prevail until the climate changes radically. For, to profit from crime as a wedge issue, as a scare factor to drum up votes, profits, and funding, the thugs must be depicted as outsiders threatening the peaceful mainstream population--as “not like us.” The criminal must be identified with a feared and disliked population group, not with average Americans, certainly not with a dominant class. By the political definition that most leading scholars seem to accept, crime cannot be ascribed to important constituencies.
With reasoned arguments, the Times’s moderate-liberal editors editorialized against Proposition 21 a week before the March 2000 election. It was a useless gesture after the paper’s news stories, along with those of the other mainstream press, had campaigned relentlessly for it for years on the front page. Proposition 21 won with 69% of the vote in Orange County and 62% statewide. In an era of plummeting juvenile crime, it will squander $5 billion creating new “gang” crimes and imprisoning more youths over the next decade in a state that already ranks 10th nationally in locking up citizens and 36th in spending on public schools.
Perhaps change is coming. An excellent July 11, 2000, Los Angeles Times front-page feature on media treatment of youth lamented that “by focusing on the unusual and negative, journalists promote a distorted view of reality... Stories that portray today’s teenagers in a largely negative light--as reckless, violent, drug-taking, drunk-driving miscreants who are getting steadily worse--have resulted in laws aimed to control and punish teens... and in both a negative public view of teens and an apprehensive view of school safety.” Reporter David Shaw cited a number of major newspapers around the country whose editors are rethinking their demonizing ways, not only to present a fairer picture but to lure back younger readers who have deserted the mainstream press in droves.
Unfortunately, it took only two weeks after the Times’s chastising for the national and Los Angeles media to jump back on the youth-bashing bandwagon. The events in question were tragic and newsworthy. In the space of a week, a 15-year-old girl in Rialto was charged with beating an elderly woman to death and expressed neither reason nor remorse; a 15-year-old boy was arrested in Glendale for murdering two boys, ages 13 and 14, in an apparent robbery or drug deal gone wrong; and a Pico Rivera girl, 17, and her boyfriend, 18, were arrested for murdering the girls’ parents and two siblings.
Immediately, the press wove the three killings into a frightening common thread of “youth violence,” in which teens were depicted anew as a terrifying menaces to the elderly, communities, their own families. In rolled ABC 20/20’s John Stossel and other national luminaries. Reporters found two previous killings of Rialto senior citizens by teens in the previous year and a half and implied that seniors were especially menaced by youths. Rialto senior citizens and officials, understandably frightened by media coverage stringing together rare incidents of youth crime, expressed fear that “the amount of violence perpetrated against the elderly by teenagers is disturbing,” and “it’s getting to be younger and younger people committing these crimes.”
None of these fears is warranted, though each is logical given media misrepresentation. Murder by Los Angeles teens is rarer today than it was 30 years ago. Youthful killers are not getting younger. The teenage menace to seniors is a myth. California Criminal Justice Statistics Center printouts for 1,900 murders in 1997 and 1998 for which the ages of murderer and victim are known show senior citizens are 20 times more likely to be murdered by other seniors or middle-agers than by teenagers. Of the 112 murders of persons over age 65, only four of the killers were 19 or younger. And, of course, it can go the other way. Last year, as noted, an elderly Santa Ana man beat a 14-year-old boy to death and tossed his body in a ditch (no appreciable local, let alone national, press coverage of that killing).
The three “teenage killings” connected by the press had nothing to do with one another and did not represent a trend. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, population 16 million, there are 25 to 30 homicide arrests every week, including four or five teens and similar numbers of 20-agers, 30-agers, and middle-agers, as well as multiple Hispanics, whites, Christians, Catholics, Chevy owners, and Capricorns. Any demographic group could be singled out in any week as committing a rash of killings.
Most murders involve domestic violence, drugs, robbery, or senseless brutality, as the above ones by teenagers did. Within the normal distribution of rare events, there was nothing new or unusual about La.’s murder pattern during the week of July 24. The panic was created by deliberate decisions by the press and law enforcement agencies to single out youths in a case in which no other group would have been. Did the press and its quotees, in light of its new commitment to treat young people fairly, point out these were extremely unusual occurrences by a tiny number of individuals in a megalopolis where one million teens dwell? Of course not--one Times columnist even opined the breakdown of civilization was at hand.
What if the Press Covered the Old Like it Does the Young?
To illustrate public and media biases against youths, imagine that the press portrayed senior citizens the way it does adolescents. My following, hypothetical media story on “senior violence” (quoted on National Public Radio affiliate KPPC-FM, Pasadena’s, “All Things Considered”) incorporates real incidents from the last year and the latest crime figures from the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Department of Corrections, and Center for Health Statistics:
“SENIOR VIOLENCE” ALARMS EXPERTS
A 71-year-old sprays a quiet church with gunfire, four dead or wounded. Another septuagenarian guns down two in a bloody office slaughter. On successive days, graying residents open fire with automatic weapons on dozens of people in senior citizens’ centers in Arizona and Michigan, killing or maiming eight. In a picturesque beach community on Monterey Bay, an enraged 61-year-old shoots two neighbors to death over a trivial falling out. An elderly Santa Ana man beats a 14-year-old to death in a rage, tossing his corpse in a ditch.
Once seen as sweet, doting grandparents incapable of violence, America’s and California’s senior citizens are committing mass murders and displaying surges in violent crimes unknown to previous generations. In a particularly shocking trend, more people were murdered in mass, public shootings by senior citizens in the last 12 months than in all of America’s schools put together.
A generation ago, old folks didn’t act like this.
Californians age 50 and older once had violence levels considerably lower than gradeschool kids’. But in the last two decades, senior citizens’ violent crime rates doubled. Today, elderly Californians are 40% more likely to commit serious violence than their gradeschool grandchildren. Social disadvantage is not the reason. Five-sixths of the state’s aged murderers are white and middle class.
The kindly, rocking-chair codgers of yesteryear are a vanishing breed. Seniors’ felony rates jumped 80% from 1975 to 1999. Today’s elderly Californians suffer skyrocketing addiction and death from hard street drugs once unheard of in the grandparent set. In 1998, twice as many Californians over age 60 than under age 20 died from abusing heroin, cocaine, crack, or methamphetamine.
As a result, the number of Californians 50 and older sentenced to prison leaped 1,200%, from 233 in 1977 to 2,919 in 1999. Taxpayers will shell out $60 million to imprison 1999ís superannuated felons, a group once thought long past their criminal years...
Imagine, for a moment, what a relentless fear campaign against the elderly, based on a tiny number of addicts and psychopaths, would do to the image of seniors, public support for Social Security and elder benefits, demands for harsher policing and imprisonment of even more aged offenders, and fears of children toward graying citizens. Of course, such would never happen. Politicians, institutions, and the press do not wage fear campaigns against population groups with the power to fight back.
As persuasive as Shaw’s piece on the rethinking of media coverage of kids is, there remain big reasons to be skeptical that change is in the offing. Powerful interests have become heavily dependent on fanning fears about adolescents. The prison guard and construction industry’s growth and survival require more crime--real or manufactured. Police and law enforcement create fears of a rising teenage population to justify rising budget demands. The $25-billion-and-mushrooming youth treatment industry’s profits demand that beds be filled. Massive drug-war interests, from helicopter manufacturers to substance abuse educators, fatten on drug abuse--actual or imagined. Politicians, institutions, and the media itself, gain immensely from depicting adolescents as the cause of these “crises.” Program interests thrive off more messed-up kids to fix. So many luminaries on all sides now have a stake in depicting kids as dangerous and getting worse that realistic discussions of youth issues are no longer permissible.
It will take massive redirection to undo the damage. For now, consistent with its national role, California is serving as the most extreme harbinger of trends and repressions sweeping the nation as a whole.