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May 27, 2006 - Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)

Column: 'Broken Windows' And Social Pseudoscience

By Dallas Hansen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

DURING the months preceding the 1999 Pan Am Games, much mention was being made of the 'broken windows'-style policing that had supposedly been responsible for plummeting crime rates in New York City. In a nutshell, the idea is that signs of social disorder -- loitering, public drinking, graffiti, prostitution, panhandling, squeegee men, etc. -- and physical disorder -- noise, abandoned vehicles or buildings, dogs, sidewalk litter, trash in vacant lots, etc. -- create an ambiance of lawlessness that invite more serious crime such as robbery, assault, burglary, rape, or murder.

Between the Pan-Am Games leaving town almost seven years ago and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani's visit here earlier this month, broken windows theory wasn't mentioned much in Winnipeg, but now it's the talk of the town's policy-makers. Even the Winnipeg Real Estate News has recently devoted front-page space to this timely topic.

Everyone seems to be looking forward to getting down to the business of establishing law-and-order upon Winnipeg's crime-saturated streets.

Indeed, not only do statistics -- whatever their inaccuracies -- confirm that Winnipeg is among this country's most dangerous cities, there is plenty of supporting anecdotal evidence.

Friends of mine, sponsored street skateboarders whose ability to make a living rests on procuring fresh footage of tricks and stunts upon urban architecture, have no qualms about travelling the downtown sidewalks at night with thousands of dollars worth of laptop computers and video recording equipment in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, or even Barcelona. But to do the same in Winnipeg is considered inadvisable.

Can broken windows-style policing make our city safe enough to remedy our reputation? Can we cut crime the way New York City did? Likely not.

New York City's streets are filled with buildings that offer the benefit of what criminologists call "natural surveillance" and urbanists call "people watching:" sidewalk storefronts, with people living up above.

New Yorkers tend to be keenly interested in what goes on in the sidewalks below and often a yell from a window is all it takes to stop a crime in progress. Besides, sociologists are divided on whether broken windows deserves the credit for New York City's drop in crime.

Bernard E. Harcourt, writing in the November 1998 issue of the Michigan Law Review, is one of many academics who suggest that the New York City's mid-1990s crime plunge is nothing more than coincidence.

"Criminologists have suggested a number of possible factors that may have contributed to the declining crime rates in New York City. These include significant increase in the New York City police force, a general shift in drug use from crack cocaine to heroin, favorable economic conditions in the 1990s, new computerized tracking systems that speed up police responses to crime (CompStat), a dip in the number of 18- to 24-year-old males, an increase in the number of hardcore offenders currently incarcerated in city jails and state prisons, the arrest of several big drug gangs in New York, as well as possible changes in adolescent behavior." To that I would add a renewed interest in middle-class urban living and the subsequent neighbourhood gentrification that followed the "white flight" to the suburbs that marked the decades previous.

Broken-windows theory is the brainchild of professors James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who first introduced the idea in an eponymous 1982 essay in the Atlantic Monthly. Among his many other achievements, Wilson is known for his defence of racial profiling and his suggestion of genetic predispositions to criminality. As an occasional contributor to the conservative National Review, he published a pro death-penalty piece titled "Executing the Retarded." Wilson doesn't believe in bringing back truant officers; he thinks "(P)olice... can be effective truant officers by stopping and questioning young people of apparent school age standing on street corners at a time when school is in session.

If they cannot show that they have a reasonable excuse for not being in school, then the police should escort them to either their home or the school." As for why London has enjoyed a much lower rate of murder than New York City every year for the last 200 years, Wilson explains, "It took England several centuries of tough rule, brutal punishment and the inculcation of class-based values to achieve a low homicide rate."

Under the broken windows theory, the line between "honest, hardworking citizen" and "criminal" gets blurred.

Dare to crack open a beer in a park, or even to jaywalk, and you could receive not a warning, nor even a ticket, but a good day or two in a holding cell. You might get worse, too. Complaints about police brutality skyrocketed after Giuliani took office. Here in Canada, one public drinker paid the ultimate price when Ian Bush, 22, a millworker from Houston, B.C., took a bullet to the head after being handcuffed and detained by the RCMP for having an open beer outside a hockey game.

Is broken windows theory useless?

There's no question graffiti-proofing New York's subway trains helped to restore a sense of safety underground. But there are limits to its efficacy, and treating every minor violation like a felony is not just a waste of resources but a way down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies a police state.

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