Law enforcement authorities in a number of American cities, including New York and Seattle, decided in the early 90’s to throw a half century of relativist theory out the window and try some common sense and practical experience for a change. Guess what they found?
If you make law breakers responsible for their actions they will behave more responsibly.
Most homeless people are not economic victims of a heartless society, but alcoholics, drug addicts and the mentally ill.
If you decide that “misdemeanors matter”–from aggressive panhandling and public urination to jaywalking–the crime rate goes down, not only for misdemeanors but also for more serious crimes.
Ordinary citizens need to be involved, rather than leaving law-enforcement to the professionals.
There are various explanations offered for the recent crime rate decline in America, including tougher sentencing laws (in our state, “Three Strikes, You’re Out”), a supposedly smaller number of youth in crime-prone age groups, the drilling of anti-violence messages into school children, and a concept known as Problem Oriented Policing–“POP”.
Using POP, police around the country have refreshed old abatement laws that permit the closure of facilities that breed crime. Rather than dealing individually with repeated cases of crime at a particular location they “drain the swamp.” In Seattle, for example, the Civic Center Motel on Aurora Avenue north of Downtown was the scene of frequent drug trades, prostitution and assaults. When the police, with legal support, abated it, 911 emergency calls in the area dropped 75%.
Nuisance abatement can be controversial, but not nearly so much as what Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran calls “MOM”–Misdemeanor Order Maintenance. Not since the tempestuous 60’s has a City action stirred such vehement and uncivil opposition as this innovation Sidran successfully encouraged in 1993.
Sidran argued against a growing assumption that people had some kind of right to live on the sidewalks. For his pains he was personally reviled by assorted activists who portrayed terrible human and civic consequences if this “right” was denied.
Fortunately, Mayor Norm Rice and the City Council adopted the package of new ordinances and gave the police new tools to combat aggressive panhandling, public urination, sidewalk lounging and other traditional, but long tolerated, offenses.
Sidran also initiated efforts to pressure neighborhood grocery stores to restrict the sale of fortified wines and large (40 oz.) bottles of beer in high public inebriation centers like Pioneer Square and to reduce the number of hours these products are sold.
In Seattle the crime rate has dropped 17 percent in recent years and MOM, as well as POP, can take at least some of the credit. But in New York, where conditions were much worse, and where fringe activists were even more zealous in defense of the supposed right of public disorder, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted similar reforms in an even more thoroughgoing manner than in Seattle– and cut crime by 37 percent.
In fact, the probably unprecedented fact is that today, using FBI figures for crimes per hundred thousand population, New York’s crime rate for serious felonies is lower than Seattle’s. Even if people are better about reporting crimes in Seattle than in New York, this is still a stunning change.
It was also in New York some thirty five years ago that Jane Jacobs wrote her now-classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs made the case that the best deterrence against crime is an alert citizenry, whose “eyes on the street” make would-be criminals uncomfortable.
Where, on the other hand, she noted, people see social deviants skiping with impunity over subway turnstiles to avoid paying fares, or urinating in the streets, the ignored misdemeanors accumulate into a general mood of menace. The public, rather than the potential criminal, becomes uncomfortable. Citizens begin to abandon the street. Eventually, they abandon the cities.
The insights Jacobs expounded have since been expanded in books on crime by James Q. Wilson (Thinking About Crime), on homelessness by Donald Burns and Alice Baum (A Nation in Denial) and on misdemeanors by George Kelling and Caroline Coles (Fixing Broken Windows). But they are still contested by the tribe of sociologists and others who believe that you cannot affect crime unless you first solve a long list of social and economic problems.
Nonetheless, without in any sense forgetting society’s need to care for the needy, public officials have begun to return to the common sense ideas of Jacobs and her followers. Indeed, they have asserted the right of the needy, especially the elderly, poor and disabled– as well as the young, prosperous and agile–not to be preyed upon by lawbreakers. That means that public order must be maintained.
However, as Sidran notes with a sigh, “Police, prosecutors and the courts still have a long way to go in understanding that misdemeanors matter.”