Remarks to the Community in St. Petersburg, Florida
Thank you very much. We are delighted to be here today, all of us. I'm especially glad that Attorney General Reno came down from Washington with me. When she became the Attorney General, Florida gave the United States a great national resource, and I know you're all proud of the job that she has done.
I also want to thank my longtime friend Governor Chiles. You know, in his former life Governor Chiles was a Member of the United States Senate and was head of the budget committee. He thought arithmetic was functioning better at the State and local level, and so he decided to leave Washington. But when he left, it made it harder for the rest of us to make arithmetic work in Washington. And I'm glad to be here with him, and I especially honor the innovations that he has pushed in health care and in crime.
I want to thank Congressman Bill Young for hosting me in his district and for coming down last night on the plane. I'm also glad to see Congressman Miller here today and Congresswoman Karen Thurman from your neighboring districts.
We had a remarkable health care forum last night, as you probably know, in Tampa, with about 1,000 people there. And there were six or seven Members of Congress, roughly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, who came there with me in our effort to bring this country together around that issue.
I got a little briefing on St. Petersburg Beach from Mayor Horan when I was up here. He told me that we had a wide variety of ages here. I think—you said your grandson was here, and he's one year old today. Where—is the Mayor's grandson here? Hold up the Mayor's grandson. Look at that. And we have at least one of your distinguished citizens here who is in her nineties. Melita, stand up there. Thank you. In between, we've got a President; an Attorney General; a Governor; three Members of Congress; your State attorney general, Bob Butterworth, who is here; the Mayor of St. Petersburg, David Fisher; the chief of police of St. Petersburg, Darrel Stephens; a number of State representatives and county officials and representatives from community groups, Crime Watch and other groups.
I say that to make this point: If you look out across this crowd today, from that young man celebrating his first birthday to this fine lady who has seen almost this entire century come and go, you see across this crowd people of different races, different political parties, different walks of life, all of us part of the family of America, all of us caught up now in a time of sweeping and profound change, change which opens up to us vistas of opportunity that our forebears could never have imagined and change which presents us with threats and troubles that our forebears never could have imagined.
I really believe that in a time like this, my job as your President is to try to identify the challenges facing our country and then to try to offer my best ideas about a solution and then to try to energize people all across the country to work until we find a solution. Whether it's the one I suggested or some other one, we have to urgently face both the opportunities and the problems before us in a time when we have to change so much.
And that's the first decision we all have to make. Whether it's in education or the economy, we have to be willing to change. When you're confronted with a time of sweeping changes, with a bunch of things that are happening that are good that you can be part of and a bunch of things that are happening that are bad that you want to avoid, basically you have two options. You can sort of hunker down and put your arms around yourself and hope it will go away; that works about one time in a hundred. And then if you play the odds, 99 percent of the time what you have to do is take a deep breath and stick your chest out and turn right into the change and figure out what you can do.
Now, one of the things that all of us have learned in our lives, that even children learn early, is that you are more able to make changes you need to make when you are more secure. The more personally secure you are, the more you feel good about who you are and your connections to other people and your roots in a community, the more you are able to change. It seems almost ironic, but the more rooted you are in the traditionally human ties and the traditional human values that make life so rich, the more you're able to change so that you can enhance what you value. The more insecure we are, the more difficult it is for us to change because we're too busy just trying to survive.
So, in a funny way, the pursuit that we must have as a people for security is tied closely to the pursuant we must have as a people for change. And I believe as strongly as I can say that that's one of the reasons that makes this campaign for health care reform so important, that it will give our people the security to change. And it's one of the things that makes our efforts to try to reduce the crime rate and enhance human decency and dignity and reduce violence and destruction in our country so important because that is the security we need, the bedrock we need to make the economic changes, to make the education and training changes, to make the other changes we need in this country.
Last night, when we had that wonderful town hall meeting, people asked dozens and dozens of questions—I don't know how long we stayed there; it was way too late. [Laughter] There are a lot of people in America, if they watched that whole show last night, are sleepy at work today, I'll tell you that. But what you saw there is people yearning for security.
Here in this area, the principles I announced in health care reform are very much related to the principles of this anticrime effort our administration is undertaking. Security, health care that you've always got, that can't be taken away. Simplify the system; it's a nightmare for the doctors and the nurses and the people who are getting health care. Achieve savings, because the system is too wasteful, you can't justify putting more money in a broken machine until you've fixed it. Maintain choice for consumers and have quality. One of the things that matters so much in Florida is the idea that people on Medicare as well as people on Medicaid will be able to get prescription drugs now under this program, very important for older people to maintain their quality of life. And finally, to have more responsibility in the system. And that relates directly to the crime issue because one of the reasons American health care is so expensive is that our hospitals and our emergency rooms are full of people who are cut up and shot. If you look at the amount of money the American taxpayers pay in health care for violence, it is staggering. And the more we do that, the less we have to spend on other things that make us all well and more secure.
Now, one of the things that our health care reform package and the crime initiatives that the Attorney General is leading have in common is a focus on prevention. You know, I got a great hand the other night talking to Congress, and I said, "You know how your mother said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Well, your mother was right." Well, that's the truth. For the first time, if we pass this health care reform program, everybody will have in their health care package preventive services. We will save money and enhance the quality of life, enhance security if you give every child an immunization plan, if you have well-baby visits, if you have Pap smears and mammograms and cholesterol tests and the kinds of things that keep people well as well as help them to get well if they get sick.
The same thing is true in crime. We know from experience after experience after experience that the kind of violence that has unfortunately gripped the headlines in Florida in the last several days and grieved so many of us as Americans, when people who come to our shores are hurt or killed when they want to see our country and they want to get to know the best about it, that is far from a problem of Florida alone. And certainly not a problem for our foreign visitors alone. When Michael Jordan's father was killed recently, a nation grieved, but no one knew the names of the other 22 people who died in that county this year. This is a national problem.
When I was born in 1946, homicide wasn't even in the top ten leading causes of death in America. In fact, listen to this, throughout my lifetime homicide never made the top ten until 1989. And yet, now, homicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans age 15 to 25. And more of our teenage boys die from gunshots now than any other cause.
Now, we can decide again what to do with this. Are we going to hunker down and turn away and pretend it's not happening? Maybe it will go away; we've got a one chance in a hundred that will happen. Or we can face it, and we can face the problem in all of its human manifestations, just the way the Attorney General said.
These kids we just met out here who got in trouble and now they're in this program, pretty good kids. They've got a whole life ahead of them. They've got contributions they can make. And we need to see what we can do about preventing the life that might happen that none of us want to occur.
This initiative that we have undertaken in our administration to give more security and to make this society safer includes at least three forms of prevention I want to emphasize, because we know they work and because they are rooted in getting people at the grassroots community level more power over their own lives.
First is giving these children who get in trouble something to say yes to and some order and framework in their lives. Senator Moynihan said on television last Sunday, the distinguished Senator from New York who's been a student of American social history for 50 years, "We have gotten used to accepting a lot of behavior from people in this country that's pretty destructive. We have gotten used to the fact that a lot of kids grow up alone or almost alone in conditions that are very damaging to themselves and aren't conducive to learning good things and good habits." And we have let it happen. But all over America there are programs like the boot camp program. One of these young men just came out of the boot camp program of this program and he told the Governor that he liked the program. More people ought to be in it, because, he said, "It used to be you could"— he knew this—he said, "It used to be you could ship kids my age off to the service, but we're going down. We don't have a draft anymore. We're going down in the number of people in the service. So we've got to have a substitute where people can learn discipline and order and be able to see the future as something that happens 3 years from now, not 3 minutes from now." And we have to have programs like this Marine Institute, which now is spreading across the country. This program is giving young people a chance to take their future back, a chance to understand that there is good inside them, that they can do things that are useful and productive and profitable and a lot more fun than whatever it is that got them into this program in the first place.
Those young people told me what it was like to learn how to give CPR, to learn how to scuba dive, to learn how to repair a boat and fix it so it would sail, to learn how to deal with each other and with adults so that they could get jobs. This program now operates in partnership with grassroots people in seven other States nationwide. They've taken 20,000 young people at risk and helped them to become responsible citizens. And so far, after they leave this program 75 percent of the young people that go through this program never have any criminal convictions again. If every young person in America that got in trouble had a chance to be in a program like this, think what a difference it would make. It's very important. How many times do you pick up the paper and read about somebody finally did something terrible after they had been arrested 13 times or 15 times or 20 times. We need a system in this country, and the National Government cannot do it, but we can help you do it. We can help provide funds and support and technical expertise, but people at the grassroots level have to do it. We've got to have systems in this country where everybody in those critical young years has a chance to be in a boot camp like this, like you have in Florida, or a program like the Marine Institute or both if they need it.
We have an experimental program we started last June. Ten military facilities have been enclosed across the country where kids who are high school dropouts are able to come back and get their GED and have the benefit of military-type training. And a lot of these kids just love it. It's just changed their whole outlook on life. We have got to understand that we are raising a generation without the structure and order and predictability and support and reinforcement that most of us just took for granted. We took it for granted. And there's no use in us pretending that some National Government program and money alone will fix it. But there's no use in us pretending that just preaching at people will fix it, either. We have to actually change the conditions of opportunity for these young people.
The second thing we have to do is to recognize that our police forces can do more if they're more closely connected to the community, if there are enough of them, and if they operate in the same neighborhoods and concentrate on the problem areas. The buzzword for that is community policing. And it works. It works. I have been in cities all across America where the crime rate is dropping because of concentrated community policing strategy where police work in partnership with the citizens who live in a community, focus their resources on the areas of greatest opportunity, respond quickly to problems. I have seen that. That works.
The chief of police of St. Petersburg, Darrel Stephens, who's here, has been one of our Nation's leading promoters of community policing. And it does move away from the old ways of trying to catch criminals after a crime occurs to doing as much as you can to prevent crime in the first place. That drives down the crime rate.
This year under Attorney General Reno's leadership, our Department of Justice will fund five community policing projects in our Nation to serve as models for the rest of the country. In a competitive process, the Justice Department tried to find rural examples and urban examples, small and medium sized towns as well as big ones. Due to the strength of the programs in your communities, the Justice Department has selected two of the five prototypes to be here in Florida, one in St. Petersburg, and the other in Hillsboro County, right next door. And these funds—not massive amounts of money, $200,000 apiece—will enable these communities to strengthen their own community policing programs and develop them in a way that can be copied by other communities.
One of the things that the Attorney General and I were talking about on the way up here is it never ceases to amaze me that nearly every problem in America has been addressed well by somebody somewhere, but we don't learn very well from one another yet. And one of the things that this Government is dedicated to doing in my administration is taking what works at the grassroots level and giving other people a chance to do it. And I thank you for that.
Now, the third thing I want to emphasize and the third thing I think we have to recognize is if you want to prevent crime in this country, violent crime, if you want to stop gunshot wounds from being the leading cause of death among young teenage boys, if you want to change the circumstance in which the average age of people killing each other is now under 16 in some of our cities, you have to change the fact that America is the only country in the civilized world where a teenager can walk the street at random and be better armed than most police forces. We have to face that fact.
The crime bill, which was introduced just a couple of days ago in both the Senate and the House, contains more funds for more police officers on the street, something I believe in, we want to put another 100,000 out there in America so everybody can adopt a community policing strategy. It also has the Brady bill which will require a 5-day waiting period before anybody can purchase a handgun. And in addition to that, there are several bills in the Congress, and I hope and pray one of them can reach my desk this year, which will ban various types of assault weapons entirely from being held in the possession of our young people.
Let me tell you something, folks. I come from a State where more than half the adults have a hunting or a fishing license or both, where most of us were in the woods by the time we were 6 years old, where some schools and some plants have to be closed on the opening day of deer season. Nobody shows up anyway. [Laughter] There's not a person in this country that values the culture of the outdoors and the hunting and all of that any more than I do. But neither those who love to hunt, or who love to shoot weapons in contests, nor the framers of the Constitution when they wrote the second amendment ever envisioned a time when children on our streets would illegally be in possession of weapons designed solely to kill other people and have more weapons than the people who were supposed to be policing them. And we better stop it if we want to recover our country.
Just last week the Governor of Colorado, Governor Roy Romer, signed a law that prohibits juveniles from owning handguns. He joined Governor Florio of New Jersey and 17 others who have passed that law this year.
These are things we have to do. All three of these things are preventive. They're worth a pound of cure. Have more programs like this one. Give these kids a chance to have something to say yes to, not just telling them what they have to say no to, and a chance to order their lives and to fill themselves from the inside out. A lot of these programs don't deal with people from the inside out. That's the only way you can really change people's lives.
Give our police forces a chance to succeed with a community-based strategy that prevents crimes as well as catches criminals. And get the guns out of the hands of the kids. Give our law enforcement officers a fighting chance to keep the streets safe and people secure.
These are elements of prevention that will give us the security we need to make the changes we need economically to move into the 21st century. They will have the extra benefit of dramatically lowering the costs of health care and enabling us to finance the kind of progress we need in health care which again will give us the security we need to be the people we have to be in this dynamic era.
Thank you very much, and God bless you all.
NOTE: The President spoke at 10:14 a.m. at the Pinellas Marine Institute.
William J. Clinton, Remarks to the Community in St. Petersburg, Florida Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/217859