How to Reduce the Mood of Menace on Urban Streets

Could jaywalking contribute to a climate of lawlessness? Could public drunkeness? When a former mental patient wielding a sword on a downtown street can tie up traffic and the police for 11 hours, as happened recently in Seattle, can we see any relevance to our laws on involuntary treatment?

The answer is “yes” to all these questions. Increasingly, law enforcement officials across America are finding a connection between the climate of safety and the crime rate for serious offenses. The constellation of issues is sometimes called “civic civility” or “quality of life.” Mark Sidran, Seattle City Attorney and a recognized national authority on the subject, calls it “MOM”–Misdemeanor Order Maintenance.

When Seattle native Dick Page was general manager of Washington, D.C.’s mass transit authority back in the 80’s, I asked him why Washington’s subways seemed cleaner and safer than those of New York. His answer was that every time an act of vandalism was discovered in Washington’s system the car was removed and repaired immediately. Vandals were discouraged when they couldn’t see their handiwork preserved. In contrast, accepting graffiti and vandalism–as was New York’s practice at the time–seemed to give silent permission for more of the same.

A decade later, New York got the message, and not only cleaned up its subways, but also found legal ways to crack down on petty criminals above ground and underground alike. The public’s sense of safety greatly improved and the crime rate dropped steeply. In the subways, for example, felonies fell 75%.

Seattle has no subways, but it does have a buding effort to combat petty infractions of the law. And the crime rate has dropped here, too. Sidran and other officials have rediscovered that “misdemeanors matter.” They matter to the population at large, but especially to the elderly and poor, and to derelicts who most often are victimized by criminals.

By neglecting minor offenses an atmosphere of anxiety is created on certain streets. Seattle has spent public and private money on low income housing and on public meal programs. Huge sums have been expended on medical care for inebriates–according to one account, $500,000 over two years was spent on just five individuals. Yet until recently, crime rates were rising.

Meanwhile, demographic determinists–the people who believe that the size of a population group makes all the difference–were predicting that a concurrent rise in crime committed by youth and growth in the numbers of such youth, predicted a soaring crime rate overall.

Yet, today, though the cohort of young teens is indeed growing, the crime rate is headed down, showing that it isn’t always true that “demography is destiny.”

Various explanations include stiffer court sentences, anti-violence campaigns in schools, and even a shift by addicts from crack cocaine, which tends to abet violence, to heroin, a more sedative drug. But the climate of crime itself has changed, too, and reforms like MOM seem to be a major cause.

The trouble is, bans on public urination, lounging on the streets, and agressive panhandling are not enough to carry urban civility much further. The significant gains of recent years are bringing people back to the streets, but there are still large parts of Seattle where ordinary citizens feel unsafe.

Here is what additionally can be done to lower crime rates by emphasizing misdemeanor order maintenance.

Enforce strict limits on beer and fortified wine sales in high-crime areas and the districts around them. Bills in the state legislature this session would strengthen these restrictions.
Make the parks safer by issuing park exclusion orders against repeat lawbreakers. These orders would prohibit use of a park, or of a list of at-risk parks, by certain individuals.
Follow Portland’s example and stop conducting public feeding programs outdoors. Such programs tend to concentrate large numbers of dysfunctional people in one place, leading to sanitation problems and making the rest of the public feel unwelcome on the streets.
Reopen the complex, but crucial, issue of involuntary treatment. The 1970’s saw an unholy alliance of people who wanted to save money by closing mental hospitals and libertarians overly-concerned about a few celebrated cases of people who had been improperly confined. The resulting “de-institutionalization” led to hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people residing onAmerica’s urban streets.
Take instances of fare-beating (payment avoidance) on Metro buses more seriously.

But what about civility shown by you and me? Mark Sidran even wants to reverse the trend toward toleration of jaywalking. Police citations for jaywalking dropped from 5900 in 1990 to only 960 in 1995. Scoff-laws are gratified, while those who still wait for lights to change feel like chumps.

Sidran points out that New York–where jaywalking was notorious–has started cracking down on this infraction for the first time in 40 years, and with interesting results. “When police began checking the I.D.’s of the jaywalkers they cited,” Sidran notes, “they started coming up with people with drugs, warrants pending and illegal handguns.”

The moral is, listen to your “MOM”.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.