Murderous London is like old New York

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Policing, Worth A Look

What is happening to London? Where is the cheerful, relaxed, “swinging” city that I found when I arrived in the 1960s? That was when Chelsea meant the King’s Road scene and “debs” (as they were called then) living in what everybody regarded as an enclave of sheltered privilege.

Now there has been a murderous attack, at an early hour of the evening, inside one of those very homes that would be regarded as almost ethereally superior. In Notting Hill, they have grown accustomed to being mugged. That is a neighbourhood which, for all its status, is euphemistically described as “mixed”. You have your good restaurants and your local dinner-party circuit, but you pay for your chic address by avoiding the Tube station at night.

Up the road in Holland Park, some friends of mine have installed electronic security gates outside their house, but that did not prevent a laptop computer – containing irreplaceable research – from being stolen from their car in the drive. Over in Islington, they pretty much expect to be burgled.

It goes with the cool urban territory. But somehow Cheyne Row in Chelsea still seemed like another league. If that kind of wealth and influence can’t buy you protection from a bestial attack, then who is safe? What chance for the poor on their sink estates who are being terrorised by the local drug gangs, or the middle-class suburban homeowners trying to avoid the routine loss of their possessions in opportunistic break-ins?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the wealthy inhabitants of New York’s Upper East Side used to walk out of their Fifth Avenue apartment buildings with a dog on a lead on one arm and a bodyguard on the other. On the Upper West Side, one Columbia University professor told me, they did not lock their cars at night because the homeless used them to sleep in: if vagrants had to go to the trouble of breaking into your car, they would take their revenge by urinating (or worse) on the upholstery. You were better off just accommodating their wishes.

Crack cocaine was openly sold on the street in Harlem, and the subway was so dangerous that an army of vigilantes with red berets had taken it upon themselves to try to restore order where the police had given up. Property values, even in this fabulously prosperous city, were in free-fall. Well, we all know what happened next. Somebody had a brilliant idea that turned the old theory about how to deal with a major crime epidemic on its head.

Paradoxically, the way you confronted big crime was by dealing persistently and rigorously with little crime. It was James Q Wilson’s now legendary “broken windows” hypothesis which stated that when a neighbourhood, or a city, had become rundown and uncared-for – when its buildings and trains were covered in graffiti, its streets strewn with rubbish, and its youth allowed to indulge in flagrant displays of delinquent bravado – a climate was created in which serious crimes such as murder and robbery could run amok.

And so, as William Bratton, the now deified ex-police chief of New York, says, they “took the city back block by block”. They power-hosed the graffiti and banged up the street-corner drug pushers. They arrested the young hoodlums who regularly jumped over the subway turnstiles without paying a fare (and who turned out, as often as not, to be big operators carrying illegal weapons).

They speeded up the prosecutions of everybody they caught with all-night court sittings (some of them held on travelling courts bused around the city at night). They got uniformed police on to the streets as a visible deterrent, and undercover ones into the trouble spots to gain intelligence and take criminals by surprise. (If you are, by some remote chance, approached by an unsavoury character in New York now, you are likely to find yourself quickly surrounded by plain-clothes police who will seem to have materialised from nowhere.)

They got a grip. And they succeeded because somebody had a counter-intuitive idea (crack down on the small offences even though you are worried about the big ones). Then some other people – the Manhattan Institute think tank – had the foresight and the intellectual initiative to sell the idea.

Then a mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, had the courage to endorse the idea and stake his political credibility on it. Then a tirelessly dedicated police chief put the idea into practice, even though it meant flying in the face of all the liberal received wisdom about softly-softly justice and not “criminalising” people who had committed minor offences, blah-blah-blah.

You will have noticed that this is precisely the opposite of what is happening here. Try ringing the police to tell them about an act of vandalism that is going on before your eyes and you will be treated with scarcely concealed ridicule: we’ve got more important things to worry about than some kids smashing up a building site. Never mind that the kids who have got away with that are likely to conclude that they can get away with pretty much anything.

Now New Yorkers have their city back and we are losing ours. And yesterday’s horrific news showed the extent to which we are all in this together, from the derelict council estates in Tower Hamlets to millionaires’ row in Chelsea. When I spoke to Bratton a couple of years ago, his proudest boast was that they had brought normal social life back to Harlem.

Most of the population used to stay in at night up there, he said. They just left the streets to the bad guys with their guns and their drug turf wars. But now, there were restaurants and night clubs and movie theatres where ordinary decent people went for a good time in the evening. They have been freed from fear all the way from the Battery to the top of Park Avenue. When is it our turn?