Countering Crime's Comeback

In a conversation last week with Michael Nutter, who is all but certain to become mayor of Philadelphia in a few months, I was struck by a couple of things: the dramatic return of the crime issue in urban politics right now, and the dilemma an incoming mayor such as Nutter faces in trying to deal with it.
by | August 21, 2007

In a conversation last week with Michael Nutter, who is all but certain to become mayor of Philadelphia in a few months, I was struck by a couple of things: the dramatic return of the crime issue in urban politics right now, and the dilemma an incoming mayor such as Nutter faces in trying to deal with it.

He talked about community policing, and his desire to get Philadelphia's horrendous gang-murder rate down by giving cops more time out on the streets, getting to know the inner-city residents and defusing tensions. At the moment, Nutter seemed to feel, the inner-city neighborhoods were at once fearful of violence and distrustful of any hard-line police efforts to stop it, such as a heavy-duty stop-and-frisk policy.

The next day, I found myself reading an article in Clout City, the Chicago politics blog, and coming across a similar idea: residents of Chicago's mostly black West Side are angry about police tactics, especially in the recent shooting of a teenager, and yet they want a more substantial police presence to protect them. As a local minister said, the problem is that "residents of the high-crime area want and need additional beat police officers who invest the time to get to know their communities."

I can't help thinking that  community policing, touted as a miracle cure for urban crime a little over a decade ago, is about to make a comeback in some form. Back in 1995, we at Governing were writing about the virtues of the community police idea in great detail, citing the positive effects of getting officers out of the squad cars and on to the sidewalks.

But within just a few months, community policing  had yielded to an even more fashionable idea: "broken windows"  policing, the doctrine that police can stop major crimes by cracking down hard on seemingly minor "quality  of life" offenses like graffiti and turnstile jumping. New York, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Chief William Bratton, went in big for "broken windows" and saw the most dramatic reduction in crime anywhere in the country.

Now I'm beginning to see that community policing and broken windows should never have been viewed as alternatives -- the ideal should be to implement them together. Cops zeroing in on minor offenses really does cut down crime; Giuliani and Bratton proved that.

But if the "broken windows" officers are strangers, brought in from somewhere outside to swoop down and catch petty offenders (as has been the case in Chicago), then what you get in the community is serious resentment. Inner city residents want tough cops who keep order in the neighborhood -- but they also want law enforcement from people they know and trust -- that was the idea behind the community policing movement in the first place.

Merging the best of community policing and "broken windows" won't be easy, and it certainly won't be cheap. But maybe it's the only realistic way to restore a sense of security on the streets of some of our tough big cities.

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