Crime Issues Increase in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

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Over the past two decades, gentrification has become a norm in major U.S. cities. The typical example is a formerly low-income neighborhood where longtime residents and businesses are displaced by white-collar workers and overpriced coffeehouses. The conventional wisdom that image reflects leaves out a critical side effect that disproportionately affects communities of color: criminalization, The Atlantic reports. When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. As demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get police involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.

“There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” says Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson. “That makes for a potentially explosive atmosphere with regard to the police.” Long-term residents begin to find themselves tangled up in the criminal-justice system for “quality of life” crimes as 311 and 911 calls draw police to neighborhoods where they didn’t necessarily enforce nuisance laws before. Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., says, “It’s not a question of how many people are committing the crime—it’s a question of where the police are directing their law-enforcement resources, because wherever they direct the resources, they can find the crime.” Cathy Lanier, Washington’s police chief from 2007 to 2016, said that when a neighborhood’s population and economy begin to change, “You’re going to have traffic issues, you’re going to have parking issues, and you’re going to have everything that comes along with a rapidly developing community. So you want to have that police presence there, and establish community engagement long before the change so you can work with long-term residents to help them through the transition.”

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