City Lit: Broken Promises

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While I was reading George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles’ Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities, I heard New York City’s police commissioer on the radio proposing that his department install surveillance cameras in various city hot spots. This tactic seems to be the antithe-sis of the police and citizen “connection” the authors of this book describe as the basis for preventing and reducing crime in neighborhoods. And that’s odd, because Kelling’s observations were among the most significant influences behind Rudolph Giuliani’s winning “quality of life” electoral campaign four years ago.

In their book, Kelling and Coles offer a compelling philosophical approach for controlling and reducing crime. They provide an in-depth history of policing strategies in the United States and suggest that the traditional role police take on as agents of law enforcement has failed in this country. They write that cities should return to the initial tenets of police practice created by Sir Robert Peel, who founded the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. Peel envisioned the police as partners with the citizenry, acting as peacekeepers and developing trusting relationships with neighborhood residents.

The premise of Kelling and Coles’ theory is this: when people walk down a Street and notice a broken window, they will assume no one cares about the building. After a period of time, when more windows have been broken and remain so, passersby will conclude that no one is in charge of either the building or the street that runs past it. As a result, lawful citizens will stop walking down this particular Street.

Kelling and Coles argue that while police traditionally focus most of their resources on serious crimes like robbery and murder, citizens are more immediately concerned with signs of disorder in their communities such as public drunkenness, prostitution, panhandling and graffiti. They write that disorderly behavior eventually builds to a critical mass of fear in a neigh-borhood, ultimately resulting in more serious crime. The authors maintain that the critical issue police must address, then, is not the actual level of crime in a given community, but the level of fear. This means putting more police foot patrols on the streets and having officers become closely involved in issues they might consider more appropriate for social workers.

The book cites New York City policing success stories such as “taking back the subways” and employing a police presence as opposed to a police force in order to transform Bryant Park and Times Square during the late 1980s and early ‘90s. But from my perspective, in Harlem there is a chasm between the theory and practice suggested by Kelling and Coles.

While the book offers a model for community-based crime prevention and police collaboration with neighborhood citizens, these techniques have not taken root in New York. The perception from many corners of this city is that police are not at all connected to the communities or the people they are paid to serve.

Kelling and Coles admit this is a hard sell, particularly in communities like Harlem, and especially with young people whose perceptions of the police are mostly negative. The authors state that “America’s crime problem is a male youth problem, fourteen to seventeen year-olds being the single largest offender group…. Some 6 percent of youths who commit crimes in the United States account for more than 50 percent of all such crimes committed.” They say police must find a means of controlling what they call these “six percenters”–but they totally ignore how police might repair the hostile relationship they have with much of the remaining 94 percent of young people in cities across the country. Their community-based crime-prevention model does not fully explore the role youth development agencies, churches and schools must play.

Kelling and Coles do offer desperately needed alternatives to current practices of policing across the country. But what is needed most of all is a policing strategy to repair “broken promises” between police and the communities in which they work.

Finally, if the city government were truly concerned with restoring stability to our neighborhoods and building a partnership with its citizens, the mayor would implement this “broken window” strategy well beyond the police department.

Imagine how housing conditions would improve if the housing department adopted a policy of “fixing broken boilers.” Or the heightened educational outcomes that would result from a Board of Education policy of “fixing broken schools.” Ultimately, Fixing Broken Windows would serve New Yorkers best if it were required reading for everyone in leadership in city government.

Shown Dove is director of the Countee Cullen Community Center in Harlem.