Blazing consequences of blight

On Monday, firefighters from the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Department responded to two suspicious structure fires in the Dollarway area. Both houses were vacant — and had been for some time.

As Fire Chief Shauwn Howell told The Commercial on Tuesday, “At this point, they are still under investigation. We don’t have any real leads as far as individuals, but we will continue to investigate [the fires] as being intentionally set.”

These two fires are just the latest losses in a protracted series of probable arsons involving vacant and abandoned buildings. The fact that two occurred in such proximity to one another — both in time and place — indicates the existence of several systematically entrenched problems in Pine Bluff.

The first problem resides in the fact that we have far too many vacant, abandoned and condemned structures. Virtually every neighborhood in town boasts at least a couple of houses in which no one has lived for years.

The second stems from the fact that many of these buildings have no apparent, identifiable or reachable owner. The inability of city officials to identify and/or contact property owners sets up a system whereby no one is accountable. If the property is owned by an out-of-state concern or an LLC with no listed agent, there is paltry little that can be done when fires, squatters or some other blight attaches.

For their part, the Pine Bluff City Council has been extremely resistant to amending the code of ordinances to criminalize this kind of intentional avoidance of responsibility.

As a consequence of their resistance, many neighborhoods in Pine Bluff have taken on a dinginess that signals an absence of concern and responsibility.

To this point, we are mystified that the city government does not have a direct, definite and immediate method to contact an owner or agent for all property within the city — and in many cases doesn’t appear to want one.

What these twined issues both reflect is a lack of what criminologists term “capable guardians.” In 1979, the researchers, Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson developed a body of scholarship now known as Routine Activities Theory. Their approach was unique in that it differed from traditional deterrence-based approaches to crime-fighting, focusing instead on the situational contexts that are conducive to crime.

Cohen and Felson reasoned that there would always be people in society who would commit crime. With that as the “given,” they asked instead what circumstances were more permissive of crime than others.

Their answer was succinct: Crime happens when a suitable target intersects in time and space with a motivated offender and in the absence of a capable guardian.

In short, there’s something to steal, someone wants to steal it, and there’s nobody around to stop them. In this framing, the question then becomes not one of deterring through threat of punishment — which usually doesn’t work all that well — to one of target hardening.

Sometimes that hardening comes in the form of locks and bars, but it is far more lasting and effective when people assert guardianship over places. We see this all over Pine Bluff. In those neighborhoods predominated by long-term residents and neighbors who are positively involved in one another’s lives, crime tends to be lower.

Unfortunately, we have many public policy deficits that undermine the capability of would-be guardians. Perhaps more unfortunately, we have city council members who seem determined to deny the necessity of deep systemic changes. Their denial undermines the hard work of residents who want to guard and defend their neighborhoods from irresponsible and criminal intrusion.