"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 12, 2014

Perception Versus Reality, Revisited

It’s been a refreshing change to write about how millions of dollars competing for access to a community can cause problems, but now it’s back to rather more gritty subjects, because they are more widely shared along the lower Schuylkill.  That means crime and public safety, all viewed through one of my favorite contexts, that of Perception versus Reality.

Back on May 9, I published a post that discussed the activation of  “The Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force,” an effort launched with some fanfare and the presence of all three county commissioners.  What I found fascinating about the program was that its goal was not to improve the quality of life in Norristown, but to convince the public that the quality of life in Norristown was already good.  Council President Bill Caldwell set the tone by proclaiming that “Urban communities often get a bum rap for being places where random crime happens and we’re here to tell you today that that is not what happens in Norristown.”  Thus speaketh the authorities, both of Norristown and of Montgomery County.

I tried to throw the Wet Blanket of Reality on all this by observing that I knew several rational, informed people who judged Norristown to be a less safe place to live than they wish on the basis of their experience with that very reality.  In other words, they live there.  I predicted that changing these more informed perceptions would take a lot more than just making law enforcement more visible.

At the conference, the principals asked the public to give them a year before making a judgment, and that was a fair request.  It has now been seven months since that new initiative was launched, so it’s not too early to check in for a preliminary survey.  So, residents of Norristown, Pa., I have two questions:

First: Do local events in the last six months suggest that Norristown’s “Quality of Life” initiative is contributing to making the streets safer?
 If so, kudos, but remember that such a change of mind was not what the Initiative sought.  It was designed to help you believe that you already were living in a safe, secure community.  That was the “reality,” remember? 

So that’s my second question: Have you realized the error you have been making all this time, and the reality that Norristown is a safe community in which to live, work and play?  If so, then the “Norristown Quality of Life” initiative has truly been a success.  Quite frankly, a majority “yes” to the first question would be achievement enough, but I don’t want to rule anything out.

While I wait for responses to these admittedly loaded questions, I want to return to the basic perception vs. reality dichotomy issue as it concerns urban safety.  Norristown authorities claim that the town suffers from a bad perception/good reality problem.  It turns out (not altogether surprisingly), so do the authorities in Pottstown.  As with Norristown, the Pottstown authorities are upset with all the “negative publicity” about public safety in the Borough.  Various elected leaders have voiced this opinion, on more than one occasion.  I believe I have been included among those so identified, if only in a minor way.  I take pride in that.

Strangely, the Pottstown Mercury seems to have joined the chorus that people just don’t know how good they have it in their urban world.  A recent editorial cast “THORNS to those who vent their frustrations about Crime in Pottstown on social media and in conversation rather than trying to do something about it.”  It then proceeded to make several dubious statements that speak to the perception/reality issue.

Before I proceed, let me go on record as agreeing with the basic truth behind that initial statement.  Pottstown residents have been noticeably reticent to get active in the cause of civic betterment.  The number voicing their concerns online is larger than those who do get involved, no question.  This is the truth, but a truth that extends to a great many more municipalities as well.  No one deplores that more than I do, but it is a fact that cannot be denied.

Now for what I didn’t like about the Mercury’s editorial.  A correct—but narrow—view of its phraseology says it condemns only those who speak but do not act.  But what if speaking is part of the action?  A number of residents are concerned enough about the situation on Pottstown’s streets to establish Facebook pages and websites to publicize the Borough’s issues.  In my view, these people aretrying to do something about it.”  Allowing others to vent frustrations is only a byproduct of their efforts.  

The editorial rightly points out the fact that those who complain far outnumber even those who take even that basic first step, attending meetings of the Borough Council.  Those who do attend, however, and who keep trying to organize ways to make things better, are the same ones who administer the Facebook pages and even websites.  They spread the word about what is happening around town, rather better than the Municipal website.  These pages and websites, in turn, continually implore their neighbors to get involved, beginning with attendance at meetings.  At the risk of repeating myself, these residents of Pottstown ARE the ones trying to “do something about it.”   

If the Mercury was trying to improve people’s perception of Pottstown, its next comments did not exactly help: “To date, the crime victims have been people who were associating with those committing the violence.  The incidents of violent crimes being committed against innocent victims is not any higher in Pottstown than anywhere else.”  I don’t exactly find that reassuring, and certainly not something to post on “Positives in Pottstown.”  The same thing might have been said of Chicago in the Twenties; the gangsters were pretty much killing each other, right?  If I don’t think much of this, what about the “innocent” people who actually live in Pottstown?  Many would dispute whether such a claim has any reality behind it; is this just their perception?

But my favorite is this conclusion: “Pottstown needs a plan to improve the perception and reality of crime here; it doesn’t need more detractors.  Sound familiar?  Does anyone besides me find it disturbing that “perception” takes precedence over “reality” in that sentence?  If “perception” is the big problem, then Pottstown need only look to Norristown.  It is implementing a plan to improve people’s perception; perhaps they should send Pottstown a copy.   

A municipality can generate its “objective reality” from statistics, and call them facts.  But the question of one’s personal safety on the streets and at home is definitely an example of what I meant in my original post when I wrote that the facts are all well and good, but perception is much more important.  Statistics are cold comfort when one’s reality says something different, particularly if that reality is predominately fear.  And, I would suggest, the best way to improve the public’s perception of the situation is to improve the situation itself.  Remove the fear, and people’s perception of reality will improve. 

Municipal governments have more than enough problems confronting them; they ought not to consider the most concerned of their citizens as part of that number.  It’s a natural enough tendency, to blame those who publicize an area’s problems to the world for making the problems seem to be worse than they actually are.  Those of us of sufficient years recall when an entire section of the country employed such a tactic, arguing that if “troublemakers” would only cease their outcries, then the rest of us would see the “reality,” and wouldn’t be as concerned.  That was then; in today’s information age, attempts to impose a gag rule are not only hopeless, they are quickly proven to be, in “reality,” counterproductive.

We celebrate the child who is honest enough to point out that the king has no clothes, but only because it's a fairy tale.  We possess rather less tolerance for adults who make the same observation.  Some (like myself) can be dismissed as "outsiders," but by far the greater number are those who actually live in places like Pottstown and Norristown, and experience the reality of their streets. 

People who just bitch, just bitch.  Those who go to the trouble to set up and administer Facebook pages and websites, attend borough meetings and continuously implore others to get involved are among any community's most valuable citizens, and should not be placed in the same group as the bitchers.  Communities need more of these people, particularly communities like Pottstown and Norristown.  They should be not be demonized, because their perception is of the reality in their towns.  Because of that, they must not be ignored.