Making Cities Safe

Commentary, Policing, Frontier Centre

Of all the elements that make cities an attractive place to live, none is more important than crime prevention. Fancy infrastructure and streetscaping can make an urban environment look nice but, unless people feel secure in their persons and property, it will remain lifeless.

Over this decade, the trend line in North America has headed down, with cities becoming generally safer. But most of that progress was recorded in the first half of the 1990’s. In the last few years, the graph lines on the incidence of crime have started to spike upwards again.

There is no shortage of reasons, most of them involving complex and long-term social pathologies like the collapse of the family unit and the failure of our schools to perform their core mission. Yet the usual whipping horse, a weak economy where low job growth forces the poor to steal for a living, can’t take the blame this time. Lots of jobs await those willing or able to perform them.

Every year, one in fifty Canadians becomes the victim of a break-in at home. For every two residences that are hit, one workplace is invaded. Only ten percent of these crimes are ever solved.

What can we do about it? The usual recourse, calling the police, has limited value. They lack the resources to do much more than write up the incident and refer you to the insurance company. In fact, we get our money’s worth out of official police forces – the per capita share of tax dollars that end up solving crime amounts to only $340 a year. Far more goes into private options like security guards, alarm systems and the crime-proofing of premises.

But the recent experience of some cities in reducing crime can reveal a lot about better ways to fight it. In New York, for instance, crime rates have fallen by half in just a few years. What accomplished this feat was aggressive community policing.

This turnaround began about fifteen years ago, with the publication of an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine called "Broken Windows". The authors argued that the key to reducing crime was the maintenance of public order: "If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."

This concept may offend civil libertarians when applied to people: "The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager or the importunate beggar . . ." [is voicing] "a correct generalization – namely, that serious crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window."

Eventually, elected officials and their police forces picked up on this message in New York. Patrolmen who had grown used to riding around in cars and ignoring minor problems began to arrest panhandlers, public drunks and the "squeegee" people. Soon high-crime areas like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge became crowded with peaceful citizens, which further deprived criminals of their former habitat.

Community policing programs in many cities miss this point. More neighbourhood police offices open from eight to five do little to deter the criminal element. What do work are regular street patrols, concentrated in the most vulnerable areas. Nor do these officers need to be expensive, $50,000-a-year police academy graduates. Unarmed monitors equipped to call for back-up when necessary can accomplish the job quite effectively.

If effective protection for victims of property crimes took a higher priority in our cities, other benefits would follow. Making it more likely to catch the bad guys in the act is a first and necessary step.

That means fewer broken windows and doors.