It seems painful to suggest that Americans may be accepting mass murder and never-ending violent crime as normal and unpreventable. Mass shootings and other acts of violence occur with such regularity that only record-breaking body counts or particularly gruesome or unexpected acts of brutality seem to capture our attention.
But this is not the first time the nation has faced the problem of violence-induced apathy. How Americans dealt with that apathy in the past may offer hope for a possible solution to seemingly unchecked brutality, or at least a method for containing it.
Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, that area constituting the “toe” of the state between the Pearl and Mississippi rivers, provides one such an example. Governed at some point by every major European power that intruded into the North American wilderness, the region developed through cycles of violent revolution as empires rose and fell in the Louisiana swamps. In 1810, exasperated residents rose in an armed insurrection and violently overthrew the existing government, creating the West Florida Republic, before being forcibly annexed by the United States less than three months later.
Residents of the region endured a particularly brutal Civil War and Reconstruction period that amplified their commitment to violent resolution of grievances. As an ineffective legal system gave way to extralegal clashes in the late 19th century, the parishes descended into utter chaos, with fierce family feuds emerging as the primary means of societal regulation. Few perpetrators were brought to justice in southeast Louisiana, a region where violence remained not merely an accepted, but an expected, response to certain situations.
Technological advances, including improved opportunities for commerce and entertainment, and the emergence of more accountable legal services encouraged hope for a more peaceful 20th century. But far from a restoration of stability, the 20th century witnessed astounding rates of violence. The first four decades of the century included new, disturbing acts of cruelty, including a small precursor for what today is known as “ethnic cleansing.” Italian residents, for instance, were forcibly driven from some communities on pain of death. In at least two towns, armed mobs issued ultimatums to hundreds of Italian residents to leave town within 24 hours or be killed, in one case by having their homes dynamited.
In addition to large scale rural race riots and bloody labor disputes, in 1924 six recent Italian immigrants were executed for the murder of a local man, provoking a diplomatic protest from the Italian government. Far from retreating amid the progress characterizing the new century, widespread violence overcame the peaceful mandates of the new era.
Nor did the dramatic drop in violent crime on the national level reach the Florida parishes. In 1996, FBI statistics showed that the South led the nation in the rates of violent crime, contributing inordinately to the national homicide rate of 7.4 per 100,000 deaths. Louisiana ranked first with a rate of 17.5 per 100,000 deaths. FBI reports for 2012 confirmed Louisiana’s continued dominance in national homicide rates at 10.8 per 100,000 deaths, significantly higher than second-ranked South Carolina at 6.8.
When broken down by parish, the eastern region of the Florida Parishes continues to be a leader in rural homicide in the Bayou State, which statistical analysis included in the 2013 Louisiana Supreme Court Annual Report confirms.
Despite dramatic modernization, the inordinate rates of violence remain. Predators have had little incentive to change their behavior because a failing justice system threatens few consequences for violently breaking the law. Given this situation, the public also has few incentives to rise up against this behavior, choosing safe obscurity rather than putting themselves at risk by challenging the status quo. So the history of violence continues to define the present. Killers remain at large, while the public, including victims’ families, become resigned to their loss — their hostility to, or fear of, the killers never enough incentive to demand change.
Shattering this sorry state of affairs requires people to risk their own interests to break the cycle, and luckily, this is starting to happen with a method known as EAR. The EAR formulation — which stands for education, accountability and resources — contains the necessary components for addressing violent crime not just in the Florida Parishes but in violent communities across the country.
Numerous studies demonstrate the direct relationship between quality education and reduced violence: The better educated are simply less likely to resort to violent criminal acts. Education also implies advanced training for police services, from beat cops to supervisors, in the proper implementation of unbiased justice.
Accountability has similar effects, when it’s understood as not simply oversight of police services and professionalism in prosecutorial offices, but also the expectations of citizenship, including virtuous jury service and the willingness to testify in criminal cases, confident of support from the legal system.
Resources may be the most challenging aspect of the formulation. People typically desire peace and security but many remain hostile to paying the taxes necessary to sustain the effective administration of justice. Yet in those regions where necessary resources are forthcoming, violent crime correspondingly declines.
These three factors have come together in the Florida parish of Livingston. When voters approved a designated sales tax in support of the sheriff’s department, it resulted in improved equipment, training, a modern courthouse and a corresponding reduction in per capita violent crime. Conditions in Livingston contrast sharply with neighboring parishes that have not enjoyed similar commitments from the people. Between 1996-2007, in one resource-starved neighboring parish, three sheriffs in a row landed in federal prison.
Credible commitment to change requires participants to embrace risk as part of an incentive to alter the status quo. That risk may be in the form of resources, including adequate financial support, time devoted to jury service and courage to support law enforcement officials when needed. Peace and prosperity come with a price.
We should encourage policy planners and our elected officials to support the EAR formulation as a means to directly challenge the sources of violent crime, rather than wasting funds on amorphous and poorly regulated community projects or simply addressing the aftereffects of violence. The troubled past and hopeful future in sections of the Florida Parishes suggest the result may be worth the effort.