Geraldo Rivera: Just Do It

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Since starting my daily WABC Radio programs a couple of years ago, I’ve been pronouncing what I immodestly call ‘Geraldo’s Laws.’ Basically, they are suggested changes in social policy that I advocate on the show and on my various Fox News television appearances.

Among my ‘Geraldo’s Laws’ are principles like this one: all social programs should be designed to keep families together. In that regard, a father’s name should be required on every birth certificate. Somebody helped mom bring that child into the world, and that person should not be allowed to walk away for responsibility.

Critics of the policy are so concerned that the link between the end of aggressive policing, including Stop and Frisk, and the increase in violence will be firmly established that they are opposed to the study even being conducted. They are afraid of the truth.

— Geraldo Rivera

Here’s another, which harkens back to the controversy I generated when I suggested during the Trayvon Martin tragedy that the teenager’s hoodie played a significant role in his death. Kids particularly should dress for success not regress; in other words, if you dress like a thug, people are going to treat you like a thug.

And the list goes on.

But one of my firmest principles over an enduring five-decade long career in public life and on the pop cultural scene is that you can’t complain about issues if you’re not doing something to change the thing you’re complaining about.

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And this principle applies to issues as divergent as the care and treatment of the developmentally disabled to gun violence.

Let me start with the issues concerning the disabled because it is probably the most important journalistic crusade of my life. Last month I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at the School of Social Work at the College of Staten Island, which is built, as many of you know, on the grounds of what used to be called the Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded.

I was a young and not very experienced Eyewitness News Reporter when I got the tip that right here in New York City, right on Staten Island, we had one of the biggest and one of the absolute worst institutions for the disabled.

Without belaboring the point, I got my hands on a key to one of the locked wards of the now defunct institution, opened the heavy door, and was transported back to the Middle Ages.

I went on the 6:00 news that night, obviously shaken and upset by the horrors I had just filmed, and the report rocked this city like no local story had ever done. People were disgusted, outraged and hurt by the scenes of the suffering inside those walls right here in the world’s greatest city. As I said at the time, “this is what it looks like. This is what it sounds like. But how can I tell you about how it smells?”

What became obvious immediately was that something had to be done. And I’m talking about much more than cosmetics, cleaning up the filth and so forth. Something structural had to change. And that’s the real legacy of that 42-years-long effort to change the way we care for the developmentally disabled. Not only did we expose the grim reality of local institutions like Willowbrook, and Letchworth Village up in Rockland County and similar institutions around the nation and the Western world; we advocated a way to fix it.

What took the place of the huge, dark, filthy institutions is an ever expanding universe of small, community-based residences where the people we used to call retarded and now we say are developmentally disabled or autistic are being cared for on a one-to-one basis; where instead of four or five thousand institutional residents, these one-to-one homes typically house four or five folks; and their caregivers know what they like to eat. They get jobs. They have relationships. And their average life-expectancies have more than doubled.

I’m very involved with various private, non-profit groups that are opening and operating scores of these homes in the New York/New Jersey area, groups like Life’s WORC, Open Gate and many others.

In other words, what was revolutionary about that decades-long crusade is that we in the media not only did the requisite exposes, we also advocated how to fix the problem that we had uncovered.

But because complaining is much easier than fixing, that is not what usually happens. For instance, tragically, that historic Willowbrook success for the mentally retarded was not replicated for the mentally ill, you know the folks with various emotional psychiatric problems. Yes, those big institutions for the mentally ill were also closed shortly after the institutions for the mentally retarded. Creedmoor, Pilgrim State, King’s Park and the others here in the New York area and around the country were shut down, ostensibly because they were sub-standard, but also because they were expensive to operate.

But, and this is a big but, the system of community-based mental health centers that were supposed to replace those institutions for the mentally ill never really materialized; certainly not nearly in sufficient numbers.

The result is the severely mentally ill are ending up homeless on the streets, or are being warehoused in jails and prisons, and they were probably better off before the institutions were shut down.

The moral of this story, again, is that complaining is one thing. Fixing is another.

Which brings me – perhaps awkwardly? – to Stop and Frisk.

Here’s how this volatile issue fits into my theme. I spend most of my life in New York City, living through the bad old days in the 1960’s and ‘70’s when we routinely suffered more than 2,000 murders every year and twice that many rapes. Everybody complained about street crime in those days. It was a menace that millions lived with daily.

Things gradually improved with Koch and Dinkins in the 1980’s. But it was really when new Mayor Rudy Giuliani hired Bill Bratton as his police commissioner in 1994 that the NYPD got smarter, sharper and empowered. The result was plummeting crime rates, and a remaking of New York’s image as one of the world’s most dangerous places to live. The Giuliani/Bratton/Kerik improvements accelerated under Mayor Bloomberg and his sainted though now much maligned Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

One of the tactics they used to become the safest big city in the world was Stop Question and Frisk; which has been hobbled by the current Mayor Bill DiBlasio and by a crusading federal court judge who declared it unconstitutional? It is the single most important reason that we are not suffering the plague of violence being endured by Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Newark.

Now, statistics emerging from neighborhoods like the 47th Precinct in the Bronx and the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn indicate that violent crime, especially involving guns, is on the increase.

Concerned as he should be, Commissioner Bratton has ordered an NYPD study to determine whether the uptick in violence is related to the crippling of Stop and Frisk. Critics of the policy are so concerned that the link between the end of aggressive policing, including Stop and Frisk, and the increase in violence will be firmly established that they are opposed to the study even being conducted. They are afraid of the truth.

So let me wrap this up by repeating what I said at the beginning. It is easy to complain. It is hard to fix. Right now, New Yorkers’ feeling of security and well-being may hang in the balance. I believe the Bratton study will find a link between the current increase in violent crime and the end of Stop and Frisk. If there were problems with the program, fix Stop and Frisk. Don’t ignore our urban realities and return to the bad old days.

Stand up and say something.