Zero tolerance on crime: Can you dig it?
Watching from afar, I noted a press release from a federal minister talking about a Brisbane suburb. It was headlined: “Making Sunnybank’s streets safer”. How can a place called Sunnybank possibly be unsafe?
But, you know, places can get that way. Or un-get that way. Which is what happened to New York. It got safe.
Recently, I re-watched the still-watchable 1979 film The Warriors, about a New York gang’s attempt to get home to Coney Island by crossing from the Bronx through the wilderness of Manhattan.
Some of the scenes are shot around the subways where I live, in New York’s sedate, family-friendly Upper West.
It’s pretty clear the subway depictions in that film are not sets. They’re the real thing. And they look bad, covered in graffiti and overrun with creeps. Most of all, they look lonely and un-policed. That’s how it was.
People didn’t risk their lives walking about the same places where nowadays the greatest danger is being knee-capped by a wayward pram. It is really very difficult to picture how bad it was.
“I used to walk home at nights down the middle of the street - the safest place,” says New York author Kate Buford, who studied the streets of upper Manhattan when researching a biography on actor Burt Lancaster.
But she also lived in the Upper West in the 1980s and says the whole area from 110th St down to 79th was “really very dangerous”. The 96th St subway - now servicing an upmarket part of Broadway - was to be avoided. Morningside Park near Columbia University was no man’s land.
And who knew what was happening just further north in Harlem.
Many have been credited with having cleaned up New York, most obviously Rudy Giuliani, mayor from 1994 to 2001 and often associated with zero-tolerance policing.
But it is generally agreed the true architects of New York’s fight back against street crime were criminologist Professor George Kelling, along with his colleague, James Wilson (who died in February).
In the early 1980s they developed the Broken Windows theory, which argues that when a kid sees one building with a broken window, he’ll then throw a rock through another window. Eventually, all the windows will be smashed.
The idea is that people committing small misdemeanors should be jumped on, quickly, in order to halt urban decay.
In 1985, Kelling was hired as a consultant by New York’s transit police to target graffiti and clean up the dangerous subway. This gave some confidence back to commuters, but it was superficial.
Then, in 1990, William Bratton, in charge of New York transit police (he retired as Los Angeles’ police chief in 2009) decided to take Kelling’s theories further. Police began cracking down on fare evaders and ran checks on those who were caught. One in 10 were serious criminals with warrants.
Police began exploiting their contacts with these criminals. Busted for fare evasion, but wanted for more serious crimes, they began to cooperate. The authorities began to understand the who’s who of New York’s criminals.
By the time Giuliani came along, in 1994, he began calling it zero tolerance. That is now seen as something of a dirty term in the US, because it suggests that police can act without discretion and persecute anyone for any trifling misdeed.
I spoke to Kelling last year, who told me that zero tolerance never could - and never did - work in New York. The weary public would not tolerate being harassed by both muggers and police.
But selective zero tolerance - such as occurred in the mid ‘90s when outsiders were coming in to bash gays in the Greenwich Village area – did work.
It took a clear and public laying down of the law.
“If there is really a well-organised gang, the message is if any one of your members gets involved in violent crime we’re coming after all of you,” he said.
“If you spit of the sidewalk, we’re coming after you. You have to control your members. If any of your members carry guns, we’re coming after all of you.
“You send a very strong message that gangs have to control their crazier members. When you get a gang, they’re not all prepared to kill people. It’s only a small number in that gang. The gang itself has to exert control on its own people. And the police have to make sure the public knows what it’s doing.”
The NSW drive-by shootings are a case in point. From my distance in New York, it is not clear whether these are small individual groups or larger gangs. They seem not to be caught or prosecuted, which is the advantage of the cowardly drive-by.
Usually, the only evidence is a slug from an unregistered gun, which makes prosecution difficult.
But police have a general idea who they are.
Kelling’s view was that police shouldn’t wait until the drive-by shooting happens; they cannot ignore small offences in the hope they’ll arrest them later as big scalps. Police must get in first by lawfully harassing dangerous criminals on minor infringements.
The view is counter-intuitive to almost every cop show ever seen, where the idea is that cops ignore every minor misdeed in the hope of nailing someone for something bigger.
But New York began jamming troublemakers into the court system to face minor charges. The serious charges could wait.
“Criminal types are busy,” said Kelling. “They’re committing serious offences and so when you enforce the law against minor offences, it opens up access to real troublemakers.
“It’s simply about going into their world, telling them you know who they are, and if they commit even minor offences you’ll come down hard. It’s an aggressive approach which identifies the hard core.”
When the gangs are damaged and hurting, the solo petty criminals also find the environment less conducive to their work. And the ordinary citizens who previously ignored the bag-snatcher suddenly find courage.
The New York streets were bad. Just near my home, in Central Park, it was lawless day or night. In 1989, the rape of a woman jogging through the park galvanised the city. People had had enough.
The number of rapes peaked in 1985 with 5,706. In 2010, that number was halved. The number of murders peaked in 1990, with 2,605. There were 866 in 2010.
The number of muggings was extraordinary - more than 120,000 in 1981. In 2010, there were 28,473.
If you search online for stories about New York crime in the 80s, you won’t go far before you encounter a certain nostalgia for how it was: people talk of the “true”, “gritty”, “authentic” New York.
Even Ms Buford says: “The Upper West Side was grubby, dangerous, filthy - and we loved it.
“The rule of thumb was that it took five years to master the city, if you could survive the tension, not to mention your life. Everything was hard, in addition to having to compete against the best and brightest. But, that was why we were there.”
But missing it is not the same as wanting it back.
“In fact, the renaissance of a city that seemed un-fixable is one of the great hopeful stories of our time, I’d argue,” she says. “If New York City could turn itself around, anyplace can. So, no, I would not want to go back to that time after all.”
There is one question that no one seems to be able to answer: where did all the crims go? Maybe they got to like the new New York as well.
Paul Toohey’s American Story is available on Saturdays on News Ltd iPad apps.
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