Friday 10 May 2013

Cleveland slaves and dreams of freedom

In its kindly role as an educator, the BBC have provided a map of Cleveland, Ohio, USA showing where the poor unfortunate women Gena DeJesus, Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry were abducted, and the house some distance away in which they were found captive.They were held in that particular house for the 10 years of their imprisonment, so a few points are apparent.

All three were taken from street corners on Lorain Avenue, within a very short distance of each other.  A current description of that avenue is as follows: “Once an early stagecoach route, Lorain Avenue is now an eclectic mix of specialty shops, ethnic markets and eateries, delis and fine dining restaurants, Irish pubs, antiques and flea markets, entertainment spots, spectacular architecture, historic and sacred landmarks. Lorain Avenue's diversity beckons all. Whether a tourist from out-of-town or a neighbor from around the corner, Lorain Avenue is a destination for the urban explorer. There is plenty to see, do and appreciate.”

This suggests that, unless there has been a big change over the last decade, at the time of the abductions it was already a shopping and partying part of town, with some unaccompanied women likely to be present in a mix of strangers and “urban explorers”, many of them in cars.  Cities have places where people are known, and areas where nobody is known, which is one of the mains points of a city. The area is a crime hotspot, though hardly outstandingly so in Cleveland.

Driving directly along Lorain Avenue up to the centre of town takes you under a freeway and then, one turn south down Fulton Road leads directly to the address of the domestic prison at Seymour Avenue. It is a simple drive, yet it must feel miles away, rather than just the 3 miles or so as the crow flies.

Predators have one major difficulty to overcome: they are most likely to be caught if they commit their crimes right on their doorstep.  So, they maintain the cover of the Good Person, known in the neighbourhood to be above suspicion, in the way that most people are judged above suspicion on the grounds of their ordinariness.  Predators tend to hunt elsewhere, where they are not known at all. Their judgement as to what constitutes “elsewhere” is often very lazy. A large road or a railway line is enough to define the Home versus Hunting Ground boundary.  In the case of a driver going from Lorain Avenue back to Seymour Avenue there is indeed also a major railway line to cross, in fact two of them, and you have to cross the freeway again. Although there are more direct routes, it may be that the kidnapper conceived of himself as being very far away from where he captured his victims, because there appeared to be three barriers between him and his crimes.

These patterns are of some help to the Police, though only in very general terms. David Canter at Huddersfield University has done lots of work on the geography of criminality. His book "Criminal Shadows" explains some of the things that can be learned from the location and timing of crimes, and how modern investigators look at surrounding areas in the hope of narrowing down the places they need to search.

Police are often castigated when perpetrators are found “only a few miles away” from where the crime was committed, as if mere Euclidian distance were enough, rather than population density. There are many of these clapboard houses in the city, every one like every other one, filled with people wearing similar clothes and eating similar food.

Cleveland is the 11th most dangerous city in America.  The data for 2011 show the following figures, all given as the rate per 100,000 population so to get the totals you should multiply by 4: murders 74 (UK rate about 1.4); rapes 354; robberies 3,156; assaults 1,842; burglaries 10,706; thefts 10,524; auto thefts 4,093; arson 319. Any police force faced with this crime rate will have difficulty solving cases.

The racial makeup of the city in 2010 was 37% White, 53% African American, 10% Hispanic and 1.8% Asian, plus others.  Policing cities with different racial groups living in separate neighbourhoods is usually a bit more difficult, because it is harder to gain trust, and to show that all groups are being protected equally. Also, groups vary in their willingness to report crimes to the Police, particularly if the cultural norm is to distrust and avoid them.

I can recall one young woman in London saying to me, after being held hostage and abused for a shorter but terrifying period of time, that her community and some of her family still objected to her having “snitched” to the Police about her ordeal.

It is part of every reader’s desire to want the victims released from the agony of their satanic prison. Why did the Police not find them? The Police have checked their records, claiming they received no reports about the prisoners in the house. These claims and the relevant police records ought to be inspected. However, the context in which the Police work should also be inspected. They have many crimes to investigate. Yes, they must keep searching for all missing persons, but the usual pattern of events is that after weeks have passed they know they are likely to be searching for dead bodies. Cleveland aside, detection rates in every country are often low, though the rates are higher for murders. It is relatively easy to keep prisoners in basements and attics, and this has happened in quiet suburban streets in towns where crime is very rare.

The worst thing about these Cleveland crimes is that for all those years the victims were but one step from freedom, metaphorically living next to us, but in a private hell, dreaming of the freedom which is now theirs.

1 comment:

  1. "her community and some of her family still objected to her having “snitched” to the Police about her ordeal": community, eh? These bloody Methodists.