Published August 3rd, 2020 at 1:45 PM
Glass barriers. Metal gates. Visible security cameras.
Ostensibly, each of these things is meant to make a building safer. They’re often put in place after a crime is committed nearby, designed as deterrents for any future crime. But why do we see these measures more often in minority communities?
That’s what Lisa Middlebrook wondered, except her question focused on post offices. Middlebrook, who is an anti-racist educator, moved from a majority White neighborhood to a majority Black neighborhood. The post office in her new neighborhood on Troost Avenue had a feature her old one did not — glass panes that separated customers from postal workers.
To better understand the original curiousKC question, we decided to look at how security measures are implemented and why they’re so prevalent in communities of color.
Daniel Serda, a city planner who specializes in community design, development and historic preservation, said there’s a deep history behind these barriers.
“In many minority neighborhoods, there is much more perception of crime than there is real crime,” Serda said. “And there’s also much more misperception of crime.”
Serda said people not only tend to believe there’s more crime in a neighborhood than actually exists but they also tend to believe that certain types of crime occur more often. Part of that, he said, has to do with media coverage. For instance, because some media cover homicides every time they happen, communities think homicides happen more often than other crimes.
“Perception is rarely in line with reality,” he said. “The media plays a big part in reinforcing that bias.”
As a result, people associate violent crime with the community in which they happen, which increases their fear of being victimized in that community, according to a report by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
“The presence of certain security measures can be a reflection of the misapprehension of certain types of crimes happening,” Serda said.
Security measures such as metal bars, glass barriers and security cameras can then lead to mistrust and confusion among community members. Even though one person involved in a business may feel a barrier was necessary, others might not feel the same way.
“For the average member of the public, seeing bulletproof glass between you and the clerk is probably not the most reassuring thing,” Serda said. “You wonder, what’s going on here, or why am I being perceived as a threat?”
But when you live in an area with security barriers for most of your life, that becomes normalized.
Wanda Taylor, the corporate secretary for the 49/63 Coalition and former president of the Troostwood Neighborhood Association, lives near Troost Avenue. She said when it comes to barriers like the ones at the post office, it’s hard to tell that something’s not right.
“A part of living in a place for a long time, certain things just become normal, until you start looking at it,” Taylor said. “When you don’t know what the other side looks like, you don’t know that something is abnormal. That’s the danger sometimes in implicit bias, because people on either side, their reality is their reality.”
White flight, where White people relocated to the suburbs in order to leave racially diverse, urban areas, left a lasting economic impact on minority communities. Businesses reduced investment in urban areas as White customers moved, and many haven’t returned.
Taylor said when you travel along Troost disinvestment is on full display. She pointed to the abandoned buildings that line the street, boarded up while waiting for new tenants, while new businesses pop up in other areas of town.
“Underneath all of that, the reality is that these neighborhoods are looking at decades, generations of disinvestment,” Serda said.
Ongoing disinvestment created issues such as food deserts, where grocery stores pulled out of urban areas in favor of the suburbs. Urban areas could be profitable for grocers, but they’re still reluctant to return.
Serda said that when asking businesses why they won’t relocate to these neighborhoods now, they often cite security concerns.
“If they open up (a business) and you know they’ve got a metal screen, and two-inch thick bulletproof glass, it doesn’t matter who you are, that’s going to send a message,” he said.
Serda pointed to a trend in New York during the ‘70s when street crimes such as pickpocketing and theft were common. In response, many businesses began implementing aggressive security measures like roll-down gates over their storefronts.
“It was not unusual, even in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you’d be walking along after five o’clock, and there were these weird metal screen garage doors pulled down in front of all the businesses,” he said. “Sometimes, you couldn’t even see that they were businesses.”
In the ‘90s, economic development professionals began advocating against the measures because they create the perception that an area isn’t safe.
“They started pushing this argument that this is actually very alienating to the public, and it’s questionable whether it actually increases security,” Serda said. “What it tends to do is reinforce identity in certain areas and perception of those areas.”
In an effort to make the area more attractive to customers, they began to pay businesses to take down the more extreme security measures. This initiated a shift from metal screens to more subtle features we see now, such as thick glass and cameras.
Serda said that in recent years the security of public buildings has been influenced by changing firearm regulations. Most major public buildings now have some kind of security measure, such as metal detectors, physical barriers and cameras.
The New York Times reported that in Kansas, lawmakers voted to allow concealed firearms in public buildings — but granted an exemption. Communities can ban concealed firearms so long as they put security measures such as metal detectors in place. Laws like this force cities and counties to either invest in those measures, a costly endeavor, or permit concealed firearms.
Public spaces, by their nature, are required to be open to everyone. Because of that, Serda said, those spaces consciously had to redesign their security measures with the deregulation of concealed carry.
Additionally, security features in private businesses are spurred by a reaction to a perceived threat — the business owner has seen reports of crimes in the media, or there was a crime near their business.
In public spaces, cue the post offices Middlebrook noticed, these features tend to be more intentional. Public institutions often have handbooks guiding their design. In the architect’s handbook for building post offices, for example, it’s stipulated that security features must be unobtrusive. But it lacks specific guidance on what unobtrusive means, so there’s still room for individual variation in different communities.
“Municipal and federal buildings are guided much more by specific design guidelines,” he said. “But there are people internally helping shape those decisions.”
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