Top cop: Juvenile violence sign of the times

Posted: March 09, 2010

THEY CURSE, KICK, stomp and knock bystanders to the ground. They trash stores. They drag motorists from cars and even assault law enforcement.

They are our children.

And the city's top cop and other city leaders say the violence they are unleashing in schools and on city streets is indicative of a larger, more pervasive problem.

"It's a sign of the breakdown of the family, said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. "And it winds up becoming our problem.

"There are a significant number of families and parents who aren't interested in stepping up," he added but acknowledged that teenagers must also hold themselves accountable.

If that doesn't happen, and parents don't whip their youngsters into shape early on, Ramsey said, they are more likely to continue down a deviant path.

The numbers of juvenile arrest, while down, tell the story. In 2009, 7,906 juveniles were arrested for drugs, assaults, weapons and murder, according to police statistics. In January of this year - the most recent month for which stats were available - over 600 youths were arrested.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, more than three dozen young people have been arrested and charged with assault, disorderly conduct, riot, assault on police and other offenses on two separate occasions, after descending on Center City and wreaking havoc in the Gallery mall, near City Hall, on Chestnut Street and inside Macy's.

These incidents followed widely publicized incidents of rampaging on South Street last summer.

In some cases, parents didn't show up to claim their children.

The Rev. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cheltenham, noted that with the breakdown of the family, more and more young people are being raised by grandparents, who often find it difficult to relate to youths let alone manage their behavior. And there in lies part of the problem.

"A 65-year-old raising a 5-year-old is a Herculean task because they're not physically able do it," he said. "We have less traditional patterns of family. It speaks to a righteous anger that many [young] people have."

Waller, whose church works closely with the community to provide programs and services for youth, added that the young people he sees thirst for structure and discipline.

School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman recently called the issue of youth violence a public health threat and pledged to work with various city and community agencies to combat the problem in light of recent incidents involving rampaging youngsters.

Together, the groups plan to seat a panel that will examine the crisis, establish chapters of youth violence networks in schools and enforce restorative justice programs for students who've been expelled or suspended.

However, some educators who work closely with youth, say it's important to keep in mind that violence committed by young people is borne out of complex issues.

"A lot of the youth violence that we see can be attributed to unemployment, young people witnessing domestic violence and not processing it or seeing a friend getting shot and getting no grief counseling," said Chad Dion Lassiter, sociology professor and president of Black Men at Penn, a social work organization.

What ends up happening, he added, is that many youth become walking time bombs who resort to violence and crime.

Ramsey said we must get a handle on the violence because it has far-reaching impact that may not be realized immediately.

"As police officers, we tend to look at things in terms of who's the victim and who's the offender . . ." he said. "And we define the victim as just the person directly impacted by that crime that's taken place.

"But we forget about all the other people impacted by crime sometimes and it's almost like collateral damage."

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