Safe Streets for Whom? — UUS:E worship, January 16, 2022

“Safe Streets for Whom?” by the Rev. Josh Pawelek

The fourth Unitarian Universalist principle is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I’ve been reflecting on this principle in preparing for this Martin Luther King weekend service. Though truth and meaning are not the same thing, they can easily become confused, especially when people are afraid. Fear can be a powerful source of meaning, a potent motivator, a rallying cry for people who feel aggrieved in some way; yet it can also serve as a substitute for truth. It can keep us from conducting an honest appraisal of the situation. This is exactly what is happening with Connecticut’s so-called Safe Streets campaign; and because the quality of life for young people of color in Connecticut is at stake, I feel compelled to speak out: to clarify what is true, and to assert what this truth actually means.


As the pandemic continued to unfold through its first year, 2020, Connecticut experienced an increase in crime. This is a fact. Car thefts received the most attention in the media; but there were also increases in burglaries, murders (primarily in the state’s largest cities) and, as we heard last week from Mary-Jane Foster of Interval House, domestic violence. I have a one-question test for you about the car thefts. Who was primarily responsible for the increase in car thefts? Think about what you’ve encountered on the news, on your social media accounts, or what friends and neighbors have said. Who was responsible for that apparent tidal wave of car thefts in 2020?

If your answer is teenagers, you are not alone. Many people believe teenagers have run amuck and are stealing cars at alarming rates. The ominous undertone in much of the public hand-wringing about this “crisis” is that the primary perpetrators are inner city teenagers – which we know is code for children of color – coming into white suburban communities to steal cars. That is not a fact. There’s no data to support it. But many people believe it’s true nevertheless, which has led to a generalized culture of fear. You may feel that fear. Again, you are not alone. And whether you feel it or not, you’ve likely encountered it in others—friends, family, neighbors—on social media, in letters to local editors, in statements from politicians, in the “Safe Streets” campaign. It’s out there.

I suggest this problem has been blown way out of proportion, and this fear has been stoked for political reasons. It’s a misinformation campaign which I understand as an excellent example of the way white supremacy culture has always functioned in the United States. Whether we’re studying the Reconstruction Era, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement, or today’s Black Lives Matter movement, whenever there is progress in the struggle against racism, there is backlash, often driven by unfounded fear in white communities. In Connecticut there has been notable progress in recent years. The 2020 police accountability law, passed in the months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, began to address many of the factors that had resulted in the over-policing of communities of color, excessive police violence in communities of color, and mass incarceration of people of color. While that bill was a good beginning and there is more work yet to do, it clearly represents movement toward a more racially just society. It represents progress.

More pertinent to the question of youth crime, and much less visible to the average person, reforms of the state’s juvenile justice statutes over the past decade have made the criminal justice system more humane for young people, specifically for young people of color. According to Connecticut Public Radio’s Accountability Project, “Reforms enacted over the last decade prevent children from being arrested for skipping too much school or running away from home. The state also stopped sending all 16- and 17-year-olds accused of breaking the law to the adult court system…. Today, Connecticut incarcerates children at one of the lowest rates in the country. And drastically fewer children are on probation or intertwined in the juvenile justice system — about half as many as in 2011.”[1] One of the concerns when these reforms were enacted is that young people who don’t face tough penalties will be more inclined to reoffend. That hasn’t happened. The rate of re-offense hasn’t risen. In fact, over the last decade it has shown modest declines in all categories—which means the reforms are working. Progress.

But now there is backlash, articulated most clearly through the so-called Safe Streets campaign, which has been engendering fear in white communities by making false claims about a youth crime epidemic and then citing a lack of public safety and widespread fear as the rationale for rolling back the progress on juvenile justice and police accountability. Progress, backlash. It’s a longstanding and very predictable pattern in American society. In this case it begs the question, safe streets for whom? Hint: whether they realize it or not, Safe Streets leaders are not talking about safety for youth of color.

Without a doubt, there was an increase in car thefts in Connecticut during the first year of the pandemic. According to the FBI, in 2019 there were 168 car thefts per 100,000 vehicles—the  lowest rate of car thefts in Connecticut in the last 30 years. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, there were 237 car thefts per 100,000 vehicles.[2] I can’t find complete data for 2021, but last winter and spring, car thefts declined back to 2015 levels (though not as low as 2019). For perspective, the rate of thefts in both 2019 and 2020 were historically low. In the early 1990s Connecticut averaged nearly 800 car thefts per 100,000 vehicles. The rate has been declining ever since.

Was there a youth-led car theft epidemic in 2020? The most truthful response is that nobody knows. Nobody knows because car thefts have one of the lowest clearance rates of any crime, meaning the vast majority remain unsolved. On average over the last decade only 10% of car thefts are cleared, meaning police only catch one out of ten thieves. In 2020 the clearance rate was 7%. In the data on that 7% there is some helpful information. Of those 7% who were caught, 28%—just over 1 in 4—were teenagers.

Does that sound like a lot to you? I ask, because it’s been the same rate, give or take a few percentage points, since 2015.[3]  I’m not saying it’s OK, but if it’s an epidemic, then why haven’t we been alarmed all along? Why are we alarmed now when there is no data to support the claim that youth were more involved in car thefts in 2020 than in any other recent year? The difference between 2015 and now isn’t the rate of youth crime. The difference is the progress we’ve made as a state on addressing racism in the criminal justice system. Progress breeds backlash.

For those of you who want to learn more—and who would like to see evidence that juvenile justice reforms and the police accountability law are having, on the whole, a positive impact—I commend to you the reporting of Connecticut Public Radio’s “Accountability Project.”[4] Last fall, in response to all the talk about a youth crime wave, they took a deep dive into the data on crime, car thefts, youth involvement in the criminal justice system, repeat juvenile offenders, the political debate, etc. It’s excellent, accessible, unbiased reporting. They let the data speak. The Safe Streets folks would be wise to take this reporting seriously. Check out their reporting here.

In my 54 years of life, I have never been the victim of a crime. I know some of you have been crime victims because you’ve shared stories with me. I have friends, family and neighbors who’ve been crime victims, including during the 2020 uptick in crime. But I personally don’t know what it’s like in an immediate, visceral way. I do know it’s awful. It’s a violation. It’s demoralizing. It’s traumatizing. The proper role of any religious body, and the proper role of any religious leader, is to offer a comforting, supportive, caring presence to crime victims for as long as they need it, and to advocate for them in all the ways they may require advocacy. I want to be crystal clear that in saying there is no evidence to support the existence of a 2020 youth crime wave, I am not dismissing the experience of actual crime victims. Their experience is painfully real, and we are obligated to respond to it as such.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles also obligate us to prioritize justice and equity in human relations, and that means not allowing ourselves to be swayed by the rhetoric of fear, especially when it drives a backlash against progress on racial justice. I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s fear, but the data on youth crime in Connecticut (not unlike the data on the legitimacy of the 2020 national elections) reveals that some fear is manufactured and must be challenged. If you say “there’s a youth crime epidemic” enough times in front of reporters and on social media, and if you keep holding up a few notorious but rare cases of excessively violent youth crime and letting them serve as evidence of a problem that doesn’t actually exist, you will eventually frighten people. And once people are frightened, they are easier to manipulate into taking political action, which is exactly what Safe Streets is doing. Clearly all fears are not equal.

I have recently become familiar with the work of Zach Norris, currently the executive director of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.[5] Norris’ new book, Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment[6], was published in paperback last year by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Beacon Press and was selected as the UUA’s “common read” for this year. I haven’t read it yet, but I have done some research on Norris’ work and world-view. He’s very clear about the distinction between the things that truly ought to frighten us, and fears manufactured for political reasons or that emerge as the result white supremacy culture. In a 2020 interview with Forbes Magazine he said:

“Despite dropping crime rates [we feel unsafe] because there are many legitimate threats to our safety, but also because of the rhetoric of fear. There’s a drumbeat of constant news coverage about active shooters, terrorist threats, and jobs taken by foreigners — because corporations and politicians benefit from inflaming those fears. They point the finger at people outside our borders or in the ‘inner cities.’ In fact, the most serious threats to our well-being can’t be so easily blamed on scapegoats: things like fires and storms brought about by climate chaos, or the prospect of needing medical care but not being able to afford it, or facing eviction. Those are the most dangerous and most widespread threats we face, and those are the fault of the economic system, a system that prioritizes profit over life, for the benefit of a powerful few….         

The ‘architects of anxiety’ is my term for the people who actively stoke and manipulate our anxieties so that we buy what they want us to buy and vote the way they want us to vote. When elected officials and powerful corporate interests invoke our fears, we should consider what harms they are drawing attention away from, like sleight-of-hand magicians…. While we’re spending billions on … incarceration, border patrols, surveillance, stop and frisk, etc. — we’ve also systematically under-spent on programs that would ensure safe food and drinking water, safe roads and bridges, a living wage, affordable housing, reliable and accessible healthcare, and care and support in our old age. The countries that have invested in these kinds of programs have lower levels of crime and violence, and greater well-being.[7]

In short, if we as a society really want to reduce crime, we must stop investing in prisons, punishment and over-policing, and start investing in people and communities. If we as a society want to reduce the real sources of fear in human life, we must stop focusing on scapegoats and start focusing on the resources that create healthy, vibrant people and communities.

It is said we live in a post-truth society—and certainly there is some truth to that. But the kind of evasion of the truth the Safe Streets campaign perpetuates is not indicative of a new era. It’s part of a longstanding, historical pattern of backlash against progress for racial justice. I’m speaking out. I hope you will too.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Haddadin, Jim, Rabe Thomas, Jacqueline, Smith Randolph, Walter, and Montague, Deidre, “Chart: Five Things to Know About Juvenile Crime in Connecticut.” Connecticut Public Radio, November 1, 2021. See:

[2] The national average was 245.

[3] For the record, though it’s a minor difference, when looking at the data on clearance rates, a higher percentage of youth were arrested for car theft in 2019 (31%) than in 2020 (28%). Just sayin’.

[4] Haddadin, Jim, Rabe Thomas, Jacqueline, Smith Randolph, Walter, and Montague, Deidre, “Chart: Five Things to Know About Juvenile Crime in Connecticut.” Connecticut Public Radio, November 1, 2021. See:

[5] The Ella Baker Center creates campaigns related to civic engagement, violence prevention, juvenile justice, and police brutality, with a goal of shifting economic resources away from prisons and punishment and towards economic opportunity. See:

[6] Originally published in hardcover as We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive CommunitiesDefund Fear is a blueprint of how to hold people accountable while still holding them in community. The result reinstates full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized, so they can participate fully in life, in society, and in the fabric of our democracy. Purchase at

[7] Simon, Morgan, “America’s Investment In Fear: Zach Norris’s New Book Redefines Public Safety” Forbes, February, 4, 2020. See: