Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Fighting crime in New York---and San Francisco

Impressed with Malcolm Gladwell's fine article on homelessness in a recent New Yorker, I read The Tipping Point, his best-selling book of several years ago. Chapter Four, "The Power of Context (Part One)," will be of particular interest to SF readers who are concerned about crime in the city. Gladwell deals with crime as if it's an epidemic that requires specific conditions before it can spread:

Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur...This much, I think, is relatively straightforward. But the lesson of the Power of Context is that we are more than just sensitive to changes in context. We're exquisitely sensitive to them. And the kinds of contextual changes that are capable of tipping an epidemic are very different than we might ordinarily suspect.

Gladwell quotes Fixing Broken Windows, the book by George Kelling and Catherine Coles:

Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions. If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place.

Gladwell's conclusion is that crime is not simply a matter of criminal behavior by individuals but, just as important, a function of social context: "The impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not coming from a certain kind of person but from a feature of the environment."

He discusses New York's response to crime 20 years ago. First, the city's Transit Authority hired George Kelling as a consultant. Next, they hired a new subway director to wage an all-out war on graffiti (all of the 6000 cars in the city's fleet were covered with graffiti). Then William Bratton was made head of the city's transit police. His first move was to crack down on fare-beating: "He believed that, like graffiti, fare-beating could be a signal, a small expression of disorder that invited much more serious crimes. An estimated 170,000 people a day were entering the system, by one route or another, without paying a token."

As Bratton and the police nabbed fare-jumpers, they ran a check on all those arrested, finding that one out of seven had an outstanding warrant, and one out of twenty was carrying a weapon. Soon, as transit police continued to focus on misdemeanors and "minor" crimes, fare-jumpers and criminals and drunks began avoiding the transit system.

Rudy Guliani was elected Mayor of New York in 1994, and he immediately hired Bratton to head the city's police department. Bratton applied the principles he used in the city's transit system to the city at large:

"Previous police administration had been handcuffed by restrictions," Bratton says. "We took the handcuffs off. We stepped up enforcement of the laws against public drunkenness and public urnination and arrested repeat violators, including those who threw empty bottles on the street or were involved in even relatively minor damage to property...If you peed in the street, you were going to jail." When crime began to fall in the city---as quickly and dramatically as it had in the subways---Bratton and Giuliani pointed to the same cause. Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes, they said, were Tipping Points for violent crime.

At the very least, this explains why New York collects 53% of its transit revenue at the fare box, and San Francisco collects a mere 23%: You have to be serious about enforcing the law especially if, like Muni, you are losing $16 to $24 million a year in fare revenue.

What about crime in San Francisco? A city governed by liberals and progressives, San Francisco tends to make excuses for anti-social and criminal behavior. Progressives in particular like to pontificate about the "root causes" of homelessness, street drug dealing and gun violence, prescribing various programs in response. For the progressive mentality, there's always an "explanation"/excuse for every type of anti-social behavior. Graffiti, for example, is "unauthorized public art," not vandalism, and Critical Mass "promotes bicycle safety" by screwing up rush hour traffic for working people.

Why did homelessness and squalor on the streets of SF fester for years before the advent of Gavin Newsom and Care Not Cash? Because the official city ideology saw the homeless as victims, poor people who simply couldn't pay rent in pricey San Francisco, not tragic instances of psychological disorder and/or substance abuse. Instead of making gettng the homeless off the streets a priority, progressives launched a hundred well-intentioned "helping" programs, all of which in effect made it easier for people to continue to live and die on our streets.

Progressives are now taking a similarly blinkered approach to gun violence in SF. Their programmatic approach is probably doomed, since the ongoing outbreak of gun violence---mostly young black men shooting each other---is an epidemic in the Gladwellian sense. But it is an epidemic that is spreading for reasons that have nothing to do with after-school programs or the quality of policing in black neighborhoods. More cops on patrol are unlikely to stem an epidemic fueled by a national rap/hip-hop culture that validates gun violence for trivial reasons in a social context where guns are readily available.

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