Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Syndicated righty columnist Kathleen Parker falls for a myth:

As we marveled over the basketball brawl between players and spectators at a recent Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game - and then the fourth-quarter melee between Clemson University and University of South Carolina football players - I kept thinking, "broken windows."

The "broken windows" theory of social breakdown goes more or less like this: If a broken window in a building is left unrepaired, pretty soon all the windows are broken, and so goes the neighborhood.

By now familiar, the theory was conceived and popularized by Harvard professors James Q. Wilson and George Kelling....

As mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani put the theory to work by strictly enforcing laws against small crimes - subway fare evasion, for example - and major crime dropped significantly.

Wilson and Kelling explained that the reason one broken window leads to more broken windows is because human beings respond to these signs as an absence of caring or of anyone being in charge. In the absence of authority - the symbolic adult - children tend to behave badly. Order breaks down. Civility disintegrates....

So how does this work in the real world? I'll explain: It doesn't.

Rudolph Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, did apply the broken-windows theory to policing early in Giuliani's first term. Crime went down -- but for completely unrelated reasons. Fewer crimes were committed not because stern father figures made us behave better, but because the people arrested for petty crimes tended to be people who were wanted for more serious crimes. Bernard Harcourt, a critic of the theory, explained in 2001:

Whatever effect the quality-of-life campaign has had on serious crime in New York is, in all likelihood, not a result of fixing broken windows or cleaning the city of squeegee men. It is because of the increased surveillance afforded by Giuliani-style policing. The broken-windows policy has made possible a 66 percent jump in misdemeanor arrests from 1993 to 1998 and sharp increases in stop-and-frisks that allow more searches for guns, more checks for outstanding warrants and more fingerprint collection.

I live in New York, and that's what happened: People were arrested for, say, jumping turnstiles, and it was subsequently learned that a number of them had outstanding warrants for more serious crimes. That seemed fair. (They had, after all, broken the law.) In addition, some people -- primarily young nonwhite males -- were stopped and frisked for little or no reason (essentially "walking while black"). That was clearly unconstitutional, but some of them were criminals, and were taken off the streets.

There were plenty of other factors at work, enough to please liberals, conservatives, and the unaffiliated: a grassroots rejection of crack, the Clinton economic boom, stricter gun laws (which Giuliani supported), longer sentences, police-force expansion, computer-assisted redirection of officers to areas showing increases in crime, and sheer demographics (i.e., a post-baby-boom decline in the number of young men).

There was no Great Awakening in New York City in the '90s. People still jaywalked, still urinated in alleys outside bars, still blasted car stereos at maximum volume. We had thought crime could never go down very much and were surprised to see we were wrong, but we never looked up at an unbroken window and, with teary eyes, said, "Gee, somebody cares!"

And obviously no one did that in any of the cities in America -- Boston, for instance, or San Francisco -- that also experienced a big drop in crime in the '90s but didn't have a finger-wagging scold as mayor.

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