Playing politics with brutal crimes

Posted on July 27, 2006 | Type: In the News
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Read Sunday Square Off transcripts referenced in article below.

We are entering the sweaty tumult of an election season, and the records of office-holders are fair game for their opponents.

All the votes of incumbents, their spending habits and their pet issues - they're all legitimate grist for the rough, grinding mill of politics and campaigning.

But since when did the serial attackers preying on Phoenix become a political issue?

Politics may be an unseemly business at campaign time, but there are limits. And the sudden burst of opportunism from political aspirants and other activists linking the spate of despicable shootings and sexual attacks in Phoenix to the presumed priorities of officeholders is well beyond the limits of decency.

On the Channel 12 (KPNX-TV) roundtable talk-show Sunday Square Off on July 23, Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Goldwater explicitly tied the serial attackers to the record of Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. She is unwilling to fund local police departments adequately, he charged.

On an earlier Sunday Square Off, Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute think tank, hammered Phoenix officials for what she deemed misplaced spending priorities - habits that she specifically linked to "this particular crime spree."

Most recently, at a press conference last week, two other GOP candidates played the same unseemly game of alluding to the serial attackers to score points against their Democratic opponents.

Like Goldwater, Republican gubernatorial candidate Len Munsil has attempted to lay the blame card at Napolitano's feet: "Tragically, it has taken the presence of serial murderers and rapists in our community to draw public attention to our state's serious crime problems," he said.

Munsil was joined at his Napolitano-blaming press conference by Bill Montgomery, a GOP candidate for attorney general, who leveled similarly loaded accusations at Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat.

Politically convenient answers

It is one matter for political candidates to attack incumbents on issues of law and order. Crime rates nationally are on the rise. According to a 2005 analysis by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, violent crime in this state reached a 10-year nadir in 2004. Just a year later, it soared to its highest number in that 10-year period.

Why? The director of the ACJC, Phillip Stevenson, could not provide a simple answer for The Republic's Amanda Lee Myers. "To try to pin anything on a single person to me absolutely seems like a stretch," he said. Politicians, on the other hand, seem to have all the easy - and politically convenient - answers.

Debating crime trends - and the records of sitting politicians regarding those trends - is political fair game, certainly.

That which is not fair game - indeed, that which is contemptible in its outlandish callousness - is to suggest that one officeholder or another should be held personally responsible for a sudden, brutal spate of serial murders and rapes by a pair of psychotic miscreants.

The Goldwater Institute's CEO did so twice - also during appearances on Channel 12's Sunday Square Off, once on June 4 and again on July 16.

Much of Olsen's commentary involved classic apples-and-oranges fiscal nonsense - suggesting that Phoenix could put hundreds of additional police on the streets if resources had not been diverted to financing a new convention center and other downtown improvements. Never mind that many of those projects were approved by voters and are financed by funding streams that could never be directed into the salaries of police officers.

Oh, that she had stopped there: "This is a problem. We are not prioritizing. And it's not just - this particular crime spree has brought attention to this issue, but Phoenix has higher, more violent crime per capita than New York City."

This particular crime spree.

Given an opportunity by another panelist to retreat from the absurd implication that the 136 Phoenix officers assigned to tracking the serial attackers are insufficient, Olsen declined.

In response to the panelist's plea that "you have to let the police do their job," Olsen retorted: "I don't necessarily think we do."

Let police officers do their jobs

Well. Not only do we believe that second-guessers on the sidelines should let the police do their job, we also take issue with Olsen's understanding of how city projects are financed, and how that financing relates to the number of cops on the street. The short answer? It doesn't.

The convention hotel now under construction in downtown Phoenix, for example, is financed through revenues to be generated by the hotel. Terms of the arrangement forbid General Fund money - that is, money that might be available to enhance police and fire departments - from being used toward the hotel.

Likewise, the convention-center expansion is financed through a dedicated source of funding. None of those dollars, dedicated to infrastructure, could be magically transferred to police-officer salaries. The expansion plan was approved by Phoenix voters in November, 2001. Does Olsen also take issue with the priorities of Phoenix voters?

Further, when Phoenix has had the opportunity to expand public-safety resources, it has done so. Phoenix has added 290 police officers and 210 firefighters since January 2004.

And while sluggish revenues have forced Phoenix to cut its plans for General Fund spending for four of the last five years, none of those cuts has come at the expense of the police or fire departments.

For that matter, if GOP lawmakers were that concerned about the economic health of Phoenix and other cities, they wouldn't have structured income-tax cuts last session in a way that will end up shrinking the local share of state revenues in the future.

As to crime, Phoenix has experienced an uptick since 2004. So has nearly every other major American city. Phoenix nevertheless remains third-safest among the nation's 10 largest cities, according to the federal Uniform Crime Reporting statistics. And even now violent crime rates remain more than 40 percent lower than in 1993, when violence first began ebbing nationally.

Are sitting officeholders who object to the implications of these political aspirants overly sensitive to such criticism?

Perhaps. Most Valley citizens will remain on edge until the attackers are caught, and that includes politicians.

But irresponsible, opportunistic claims such as these should not escape scrutiny. The cops have a tough enough job as it is.

Read Sunday Square Off transcripts referenced in Republic article.

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