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Independence Day 

With criminals running free on the streets, crime is inevitable

Quite frankly, it's a wonder that Timothy Mackey managed to join his fellow citizens uptown for a family oriented Fourth of July celebration.

Mackey, who is 20, had to overcome a lot to be there. Over the past three years, he accumulated a three-page rap sheet that includes -- but certainly isn't limited to -- three drug arrests, two auto thefts, assault, various gun charges and armed robbery. Mackey's presence at the celebration of this country's independence was made possible by the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's office, which helped him along with multiple charge dismissals, pleas to lesser charges and charge consolidation schemes. And that doesn't even count his juvenile record, which, if he has one, is sealed to the public.

Mackey was one of those whom police arrested for disorderly conduct after the riot broke out July 4. A few others had records with charge dismissals for things like robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault, and breaking and entering a motor vehicle. About a third of those arrested had shorter records, mostly filled with dismissed misdemeanor drug and assault charges. Another third of the 30 people arrested, most of them in their teens, had no adult criminal record at all.

The next day, the news showed scenes of the clash between police and young African Americans dressed in gang-style attire. My street-level police sources say that the fracas was gang-related. Their boss, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens, who couldn't tell a gang-member from a recording studio executive, says it wasn't gang-related. County Commissioner Bill James blamed it on the moral break-down of the black family. City Council member Warren Turner, who is African American, promised to work with ministers to reach out to black youth. Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson blamed "Charlotte" for not providing these kids with good jobs. Baffled city leaders promised a task force to figure out how this could have happened.

These are the city leaders who have failed year after year to grasp the importance of lobbying for more criminal justice system funding from the state -- or the city or the county -- with the same vigor they lobby for taxes for the arts. No doubt they'll conclude a program of some type is needed, and that the 13 new prosecutors we just got in the state budget -- which is about 20 short of what we needed a decade ago -- will take care of the problem.

Then next week or next month, Mackey will steal another car or rob another store, because it's Mackey who is the real problem here. Not Mackey personally, but what he and those like him represent to the third of those arrested on July 4 who didn't have records. Not too long ago, as I painted the inside of a screen door on my rental house, I overheard one of the conversations that are so common among black teens -- and probably white teens, too -- from low-income families. They were comparing notes on the sentences -- if any -- people they knew got for robbery, drug crimes and murder, and their estimates were right on the money.

Just about everyone knew someone whose charges were dismissed for armed robbery or car theft. They all knew someone who had done less then 10 years, and some less than five for killing someone. Drug crimes were viewed as incidental. There was, sickeningly, a genuine sense of admiration among some of those kids for the people they knew who "got away with it."

Every time a repeat offender like Mackey is hauled off in a police cruiser and then returned to his neighborhood days later to take a victory lap in another stolen car, another kid on another porch looks up to him and figures well, if he did that, surely I can throw illegal fireworks into a crowd and get away with it.

That kid doesn't understand that even a page-long criminal record filled with dismissed robbery and auto theft charges for crimes he thinks he got away with will still end any chance he had of getting one of those good jobs Tomlinson thinks Charlotte owes him. He doesn't understand the power a single misdemeanor resisting-arrest conviction has to ruin his life.

Until we systematically target and remove human pollutants like Mackey from their neighborhoods in a very public way, they'll go on damning other kids to destitution. We don't even have to get them all. Removing the worst 1 percent would send a shock wave through these communities, and give these kids a fighting chance.

If it makes you feel better, you can blame Mackey, and you can even blame Mackey's mother and his minister. But the stubborn fact remains that if city leaders from the Charlotte Chamber to city hall had made it a priority, Mr. Mackey would have been in jail on July 4.

Call kids like Mackey thugs if you want, Mr. Mayor, but remember this -- they're your thugs, running around on your watch.

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at tara.servatius@creativeloafing.com.

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