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I looked at family photos of the 5-year-old girl who was shot to death this week in Milwaukee. They were even more heartbreaking than the single angelic professional photo the media’s been highlighting. You see Laylah Petersen doing things all little girls do. Trick or treating. Going to the zoo. In church. Swinging. Taking goofy selfies for the camera.
I have a 9-year-old girl. She does all of those things. Laylah Petersen must be regarded now, in a sense, as this community’s child, too. And by community, I don’t just mean the city proper where she died. I mean the broader metropolitan area community (you mean there is one? Well, if there isn’t, we need to start figuring out where more of our common ground lies).
Because it’s unconscionable that little children are being shot and killed in our state. Too often, potentially useful solutions bog down in the muckiness of our polarized political debate. The real answers are probably not binary. It’s not either/or, nor is it simple.
However, let’s start with a little context. The media should start reporting crime with more of that, but I’m not sure there are many people covering these stories who have institutional memory anymore. Tossed in one of the news accounts as an almost throwaway line was the fact that homicide is actually down 17 over last year (and last year was down a lot over the homicide heyday in Milwaukee of the early 1990s). Who knew? Instead, the media tend to just send their satellite trucks racing to the next shooting scene. There’s a lot of academic research showing that such episodic, fragmented media coverage frightens people and changes perceptions about crime and community.
I remember the 1990s crime era in Milwaukee well because I covered crime for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel back then, so I was the one at many of the shooting scenes. Violent crime and homicide exploded in Milwaukee in the late 1980s/early 1990s with the introduction of crack and the decline of the manufacturing base. The worst year for homicide was 1991, with 1993 following close behind.
Remember the name Laquann Moore? You might not, but I do. She was a 13-year-old girl shot and killed by a stray bullet in Milwaukee as she sat on a porch. I will never forget how her father let me look at her school notebooks. Inside, she had written over and over again that God loved her. People were just as outraged over Laquann as they are over Laylah, but here we are again. Laquann Moore died in 1996. I also covered the last cop shot and killed in the line of duty in Milwaukee, Wendolyn Tanner, who left behind a pregnant fiancé. He died that same year. It was a bloody time.
I am not saying that means we shouldn’t care about Laylah’s death. We should. A lot. It’s just to provide some context for the debate (and granted you can study many different barometers of a community’s dangerousness, like non-fatal shootings, which are up over last year). Now let’s move onto solutions.
Instead of solutions, though, you are likely to hear blame – conservatives decrying the liberal mayor’s leadership and liberals arguing conservatives have no right to care because they fled this city. We don’t work toward solutions as a broader community. We just shout across the room at each other and BOTH "sides" do this.
Indeed, we’ve spent the last few months bogged down in a contentious and divisive debate about a cop who almost certainly used legal self-defense when he killed a man in a park because he was being attacked with his own baton. We’ve spent months on end arguing about two political candidates who wanted to be governor.
Maybe it’s time we started diverting more of our energy toward focusing on the real problems in this community and developing common ground.
Some of the solutions, of course, are intangible. That makes it tougher. Building stronger families comes to mind. I’m a strong believer in individual solutions like mentorship (I mentored a youth for four years in the inner city). The problem can seem so intractable at times. It’s easier to rail against the system because where do you go to protest a killer?
What I am suggesting, though, is that we start to focus more on unity than division when it comes to ensuring that little kids don’t get killed anymore while they sit on their grandfather’s laps inside their own houses and that we consider the potential solutions minus the partisan lens, the emotion words, and the cheap responses. There is, of course, no single answer.
Let me give you an example of what I mean: The gun debate. I’m a rarity, I guess. I don’t hear the word "guns" and have an emotional reaction that makes me want to ban them all like some liberals do. The word "guns" provokes an emotional response in some that overwhelms logic. Logically, I don’t worry about trained, permitted, law abiding folks carrying guns. That’s why I’ve long supported concealed carry. If I lived in the neighborhood where Laylah was shot, I’d carry a weapon. It would be sad that I would have to, but I would.
However, I also think it’s completely nuts that this state’s concealed carry law allows people with multiple non-domestic violence misdemeanor convictions to get permits, and I don’t agree with the fact that it’s not a felony to repeatedly carry a firearm illegally in this state. However, I don’t agree with the experts who argued in the paper the other day things like banning drunk drivers from being able to buy guns for 10 years. That’s a bit of a non-sequitur.
It makes no sense that people don’t have to undergo background checks for all gun sales. And it makes no sense that more prosecutions don’t result over the people who fail the background checks that do exist. If concealed carry is meant for the law-abiding folks, we should ensure that’s the case.
That brings me to the DA’s office and judges, though, the part that many more liberal commentators skip over and that conservatives fixate on. Maybe those officeholders need more scrutiny from the media over charging and sentencing decisions because, it seems to me, every time a tragedy like this happens, the person has a criminal record and some prior offense for which they didn’t serve much time. Sometimes I think Milwaukee has Mr. Snuffleupagus for a DA. John Chisholm skates beneath the radar, achieving almost no scrutiny (other than when he calls John Does).
I’d like more analysis of the patterns in the DAs office and among the judiciary, historically also, not the anomalies. But, no, I don’t agree with the conservatives who want to ban all plea bargaining. Anyone with any sense of the criminal justice system at all, knows that, without plea bargaining, justice would completely grind to a halt, and the system wouldn’t be able to function. Almost no cases go to jury trials as it is. They cost money and take enormous quantities of time. But maybe we should get tougher on the firearms cases.
See what I mean? Maybe the "gun debate" doesn’t have to result in only binary answers, the cheap "guns are all bad!" or "guns are all good!" lines. We shouldn’t ban all guns, good people get to carry them in self-defense, we need more background checks, and we SHOULD prosecute more of the laws we already have on the books. Interesting how both "sides’" talking points fit into that paragraph. Nor should gun issues be the only thing we focus on; after all, the gun didn’t pull its own trigger.
Here’s another one: This metropolitan area needs a more effective transportation system to get workers to jobs. I’ve been to many cities with effective transportation systems – Zurich, Switzerland, for one – and Washington, D.C. for another. I don’t understand why having an effective transportation system is not something we can agree on, as a starting point, although which one we choose is certainly something we can debate. Instead, we get reductionist silliness shouting about "choo-choos" (are we in kindergarten?) and goofy proposals for trolleys that don’t really solve the issue. It’s almost impossible to get from Milwaukee’s inner city to good jobs in the suburban belt using our current transportation network. If you don’t believe me, try taking the bus to Waukesha some time. No, the trolley won’t get you there, either.
I’m also a big believer that education is part of the answer. It has to be. I spent some time this summer writing feature stories for Wisconsin School Choice on kids for whom choice schools are working. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other kids they don’t work for and that doesn’t mean that public schools aren’t working for some kids; it just means that school choice is working for some kids. They were black, Latino and white. They told me they wanted to learn. Public schools didn’t work for some of them. They were bullied or found them chaotic. Or they wanted more religious education or their parents wanted that for them. Their new schools were working for THEM. I don’t think this debate is either/or, either. I think we can support and not trash public education (my kid attends a public school in Waukesha County and my mother is a K-12 teacher) while at the same time acknowledging it doesn’t work for all. It’s about the kids, right?
Then, there’s the university where I work – UW-Milwaukee. We should make sure the university avoids further budget cuts. It’s the state’s most diverse university and about three fourths of its graduates remain in the Milwaukee area. Yet, the university has been reeling from budget cuts and could use more state support. It’s absolutely critical to our future.
At the same time, Gov. Walker was right to support a tuition freeze, and Mary Burke was wrong not to – higher education must remain affordable to a diverse population. See? Neither side is always right or wrong, in my book.
We have an obligation to Laylah and the children who died before her to start coming up with points of common ground we can agree on. Maybe you don’t agree with mine, but at least it’s a place to start.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.