Crime is Down? Don't Confuse Us with the Facts
Karen Colvard, HFG Senior Program Officer
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A 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling provided the inspiration for these efforts.(14) They described a slippery slope of decline in any neighborhood which might begin with one broken window, which no-one fixes. Pretty soon another window gets broken, kids throw rocks at the rest of them, the neglected building gives the impression of a down-at-the heels neighborhood, fearful citizens avoid it, criminal citizens perhaps move in, and you have a dangerous slum. The sunny converse of this scenario is a neighborhood where small problems are attended to and never grow to be large ones.

Kelling went on to hands-on work as an advisor to William Bratton, who as police commissioner in Boston had initiated community policing there before moving to New York in 1990 to become the chief of the NYC Transit Police. The city's subway system had become very run-down, dirty, and disorderly and was being deserted by law-abiding riders, who had good reason to fear crime in its tunnels and trains. Bratton, following Kelling's theory, reasoned that if transit police reacted to petty crimes such as turnstile jumping, aggressive panhandling, and public drunkenness (the broken windows of the dismal subway experience), once these problems were fixed, the improved atmosphere of the system would encourage riders to return to the system and discourage the crimes given opportunity by disorderly conditions. And it worked. At the same time Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was doing the same sort of thing aboveground. Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993 and replaced Kelly with Bratton and subsequently replaced Bratton with present police commissioner Howard Safir. Throughout this change of personnel, the basic ideas of community policing continued to be implemented, and then New York City led the nation's big cities in the impressive decrease in crime. William Bratton has gone on to advise other cities about community policing, and with success. Premier Tokyo Sexwale of Gauteng, Johannesburg's province in South Africa, recently announced in a New York talk that he had invited Bratton to Johannesburg to advise his government on sorely needed crime-prevention strategies there.

George Kelling, supported by the Manhattan Institute (which reliably sponsors serious and creative thinking about big-city problems), has written Fixing Broken Windows, with Catherine M. Coles, to tell the story of community policing in New York, and it makes clear the dramatic change in police culture necessary to facilitate the dramatic reductions in crime.(15)

Community policing demanded a real revision of how police think about and do their work. Especially in big cities, police forces had focused on adversarial "crime fighting" (the kind George Gerbner flinches to see on TV), concentrating on solving serious crimes after they were committed. Police thought of themselves as too busy doing the real dirty work for what they considered "social work" on neighborhood problems. Kelling says this crisis-response style of policing had an especially weak record in dealing with poor, mostly minority neighborhoods and that many patrolmen were out of touch with the neighborhoods they supposedly protected, scared even to get out of their patrol cars. People in the neighborhoods didn't feel much warmth toward the police, either.

Community policing got the patrolmen out of their cars and onto the streets. Foot patrol, Kelling asserts, led to "a broad mandate from those they policed." And in fact, it was the problematic poor neighborhoods which had suffered most from the dangers of disorder--drug business disputes, predatory neighbors, and menacing teenagers with nothing productive to do--and had most to gain from more effective crime control. A better understanding of community relations with the police right now in areas where community policing claims its successes would enable us better to evaluate those claims. Have things changed? Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle have followed New York in pursuing their own campaigns for safer streets, with good results. And police attention to small crimes has paid off for old-style crime solving too: many petty offenders have been found to be involved in more serious crimes, as in the dramatic case of multiple assault and murder resolved in New York last year by the handy arrest of the alleged perpetrator when he jumped a turnstile to avoid paying the $1.50 subway fare.

The true success of community policing depends on the judicious exercise of discretion by police who know their neighborhoods: who is challenged, who is arrested, who is merely warned, when toughness counts and when tenderness works better, are decisions which depend on police flexibility and negotiations with community residents. Kelling says the police leaders who pioneered community policing were concerned about potential abuse of citizens in such cases, particularly the powerless citizens living in the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods. He gives a thorough review of how problems in this area derailed other attempts at neighborhood crime control. And it is reassuring that complaints about the police did not increase during the NYC Transit Authority's conversion to more aggressive, interventionist policing. However, since much of the narrative evidence of racial bias in the criminal justice system describes situations in the streets and interactions between patrolmen and street and youth culture, this remains an area of worry. Legal controls, outside watchdog agencies, and community awareness all can underscore the message to police that targeting individuals for harassment because of race, age, sex, or other group membership is simply illegal.

Despite a deplorable history, and discounting recent legal strategies of the "war on drugs" which may have been foreseeably racist,(16) the criminal justice system in America is not systematically biased against minorities.(17) Although this country must squarely face the tragedy of widely disparate white and black crime rates, our criminal justice system is healthy enough to deal with possible abuse of citizens when community policing succumbs to the racism of individuals.

But did community policing cause the reduction in crime? Critics point out that homicide dropped by 33% in one year in Los Angeles although that city has not attempted the change in police culture advocated by Kelling and other supporters of community policing. Crime in Minneapolis is up, despite community policing, and no one knows why. However, a lot of credit for the overall decrease in crime must go to this new style of involved, preventive police intervention. But there is still more to the story.

Although their effects are hard to evaluate, communities all over the U.S. have launched their own crime-prevention efforts. While dissension and sloppy execution mar the effectiveness of many of these, some of these interventions may work. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, a highly professional mentoring program which requires solid and sustained commitment from volunteer big siblings, was shown to produce substantial results for 10-16 year-old participants, most of whom would be considered at high risk for developing anti-social behavior, in an eighteen-month evaluation in 1995. Participants were almost one-third less likely to hit someone during the eighteen months of the study period than were the controls, subjects much like them who had not participated in the program. They were 27% less likely to begin using alcohol, and 46% less likely to begin using drugs during that time. Their school grades were unaffected, but they were much less likely to skip school or lie to their parents than control subjects. A steady relationship with a sincerely caring adult seems to work most directly to prevent self-destructive behaviors: because somebody cares.

Other people speculate that residents of inner-city neighborhoods--particularly those who might have fallen into criminality and self-destruction in the past decades--are simply tired of violence and wise to how it harms themselves and others. "Guns and violence are much less socially acceptable than they were a few years ago," Carl Bell, an influential psychiatrist who is chief executive officer of the Chicago Mental Health Council, told Fox Butterfield of the New York Times in June 1997.(18) And Salahadeen Betts, a 20-year-old resident of Harlem, corroborated: "People are getting smarter.... It's no more doing things on a whim. Before, people would say, I want to sell drugs, because it was the cool thing to do. Now people are thinking and planning, they are more educated about guns and drugs."

Something is working. This should not be regarded as a blanket endorsement of all the "Stop the Violence" efforts and conflict resolution training programs, some of which can make educators and neighborhood activists complacent about their own interventions and use up resources without doing much good for those about whom we are concerned. (See John Devine's comments about conflict resolution training in violent high schools in "Violence: The Latest Curricular Specialty" in this issue.) However, the successes of intervention and education underscore the message that crime prevention should be a task shared by all of us, regardless of our personal risk of crime victimization.

A distinguished Presidential Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence wrote in the introduction to its weighty fourteen-volume report:

We believe that the twin objectives of the social order must be to make violence both unnecessary and unrewarding. To make violence unnecessary, our institutions must be capable of providing justice for all who live under them--of giving all a satisfactory stake in the normal life of the community and the nation. To make violence unrewarding, our institutions must be able to control violence when it occurs, and to do so firmly, fairly, and within the law.(19)

Wise advice. And sobering to realize that this was the commission empaneled, in a wave of sincere concern about violent crime in America, by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the year before our contemporary "epidemic of violence" is said to have begun, the year whose homicide rate we are so proud--if puzzled--to have achieved again.


1. Spelling and punctuation as in original.
2. Quoted in David Rothman, "The Crime of Punishment," New York Review of Books, February 17, 1994.
3. New York Times, February 1, 1997.
4. Philip B. Heymann, quoted in the New York Times, August 1, 1996.
5. New York Times, August 12, 1996.
6. Quoted in Jerome Skolnick, "Making Sense of the Crime Decline," Newsday, February 2, 1997.
7. Julian V. Roberts, "Public Opinion, Crime, and Criminal Justice," in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, vol. 16. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
8. Quoted in Scott Stossel, "The Man Who Counts the Killings," Atlantic Monthly, May 1997.
9. The research group which won the competition for these funds, which is directed by accomplished criminologist Alfred Blumstein at Carnegie-Mellon University, can be expected to contribute clear data-based understandings of crime and solid recommendations for policy, and--it is to be hoped--influence for the better the National Science Foundation's priorities for future criminal justice research.
10. Randall Kennedy, Race, Crime, and the Law (New York: Pantheon), p. xii.
11. "Assessing the Penal Harm Movement," Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 32 (August 1996): 338-358.
12. He cites F. T. Cullen, J. P. Wright, and B. K. Applegate, "Control in the Community: The Limitations of Reform," in Choosing Correctional Interventions that Work: Defining the Demand and Evaluating the Supply, ed. Alan T. Harland (Newbury Park, CA: Sage), to support his argument.
13. Quoted in "Violent and irrational--and that's just the policy," The Economist, June 8, 1996.
14. "The Police and Neighborhood Safety," Atlantic Monthly, March 1982, 29-38.
15. Fixing Broken Windows. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
16. See Michael Tonry, Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) and Randall Kennedy, Race, Crime, and the Law (New York: Pantheon, 1997) for views on this question.
17. See R. J. Sampson and J. L. Lauritsen, "Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Crime and Criminal Justice in the United States," in Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration, ed. M. Tonry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997) for a thorough and persuasive review of this evidence.
18. New York Times, June 8, 1997.
19. Introduction to Violence in America: Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, vol. 1, p. xxii, New York: Chelsea House, 1983.

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