Does Chicago’s Crime Flow from People Peeing in the Streets?

Adapting the broken-windows theory of policing, Chicago’s top cop wants people arrested when they don’t pay tickets for peeing, gambling, and boozing.

Garry McCarthy Rahm Emanuel

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Rahm Emanuel and Garry McCarthy hold a press conference, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, at Area Central Police Headquarters, to announce that 200 police officers will be reassigned to patrol work.

People fall back on what they know, so this isn’t terribly surprising:

[Superintendent of Police Garry McCarthy] has long been an advocate of the “broken windows” approach — the idea that eradicating public drunkenness and other signposts of community decay is crucial to making neighborhoods safer.

The superintendent said an ordinance would be proposed to the City Council to allow police to arrest those who fail to pay tickets for public urination, public consumption of alcohol and gambling, “the three top complaints” from residents.

(I thought it was “cyclists who run red lights,” but that’s because I read too many newspapers.)

“Broken windows” theory is the opposite of “oh, come on” theory. In New York, they take this very seriously. One of my friends, a tall, white, blond Minnesota native, got ticketed for walking across a park—not loitering, walking across a park to his apartment—after dusk. When he missed his summons, a warrant was issued for his arrest. For walking across a park.

A brief history: it comes out of the work of Philip Zimbardo, a Bronx native and one of the legendary psychologists of our time (he designed the in/famous Stanford Prison Experiment). It began simply. In 1969, Zimbardo left identical 1959 Oldsmobiles in the Bronx and Palo Alto, with signs of abandonment: no plates and “hoods slightly raised” as “ethological ‘releaser’ cues.” In 48 hours the Bronx junker was completely stripped, and then further destroyed for amusement. In Palo Alto, someone closed the hood.

Most people would look at this scenario and think “right, that’s the difference between the Bronx and Palo Alto in 1969.” James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, in an extremely influential 1982 piece, had a different reaction, as Zimbardo describes:

When people see abandoned cars in the streets, graffiti everywhere and broken windows not covered, it is a sign that no one really cares about that neighborhood. That perception of public disorder or physical disarray serves to lower inhibitions against further destructive or criminal action among average citizens who are not ordinarily criminal.

Their simple solution to crime control: Remove abandoned cars, paint out graffiti and fix broken windows–restoring order to urban disorder. It is costly, but certainly doable and complements police efforts at dealing with the neighborhood criminals. (At the time we did our study in New York City, there were more than 70,000 abandoned cars littering its streets and virtually every subway car and most buses were covered over with graffiti.) When that advice was followed by the mayor’s office in New York City and other cities as well, crime rates dropped significantly the next year.

New York actually did look beat up in the 1970s (that’s not a movie set). So it was an appealing idea. Kelling was hired by the NYC Transit Authority; Kelling influenced Transit Police head William Bratton, who became head of the NYPD, who schooled Garry McCarthy. Under Bratton and Rudy Giuliani, the idea of “broken windows"—the little marks of urban decay—became behavioral as well as physical.

And that’s how we get from The Atlantic to a drunk getting arrested for not paying a ticket for public urination in Chicago, in three short decades.

Since then, the “broken windows” theory has gotten kicked around a lot. It’s one of the most intensively studied theories in sociology, criminology, and urbanism combined. Not everyone’s a fan, like the U. of C.’s Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig, not to mention Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush. Here’s Harcourt:

 The most comprehensive and thorough study of the broken windows theory to date is Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush’s 1999 study entitled Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods. Their study is based on extremely careful data collection. Using trained observers who drove a sports utility vehicle at five miles per hour down every street in 196 Chicago census tracts, randomly selecting 15,141 streets for analysis, they were able to collect precise data on neighborhood disorder. Sampson and Raudenbush found that disorder and predatory crime are moderately correlated, but that, when antecedent neighborhood characteristics (such as neighborhood trust and poverty) are taken into account, the connection between disorder and crime “vanished in 4 out of 5 tests—including homicide, arguably our best measure of violence.” They acknowledge that disorder may have indirect effects on neighborhood crime by influencing “migration patterns, investment by businesses, and overall neighborhood viability.” But, on the basis of their extensive research, Sampson and Raudenbush conclude that “[a]ttacking public order through tough police tactics may thus be a politically popular but perhaps analytically weak strategy to reduce crime.”

[snip]

The bottom line is that the broken windows theory—the idea that public disorder sends a message that encourages crime—is probably wrong. As Sampson and Raudenbush observe, “bearing in mind the example of some European and American cities (e.g., Amsterdam, San Francisco) where visible street level activity linked to prostitution, drug use, and panhandling does not necessarily translate into high rates of violence, public disorder may not be so ‘criminogenic’ after all in certain neighborhood and social contexts.”

Harcourt also mentions that New York didn’t implement broken-windows policing alone (which led to a 75 percent increase in adult misdemeanor arrests, mostly misdemeanor drug charges). It also stepped up stop-and-frisk policing, which Chicago’s treasurer, Stephanie Neely, just called for in a Tribune editorial. It also comes with the additional cost of arrests and police time spent on misdemeanor arrests—a challenge for a department struggling with both its budget and manpower issues.

So it’ll be a non-trivial concept to implement in the city, at a time when there’s considerable pressure on McCarthy and his boss, which I only expect to heighten after the murder of six-month-old Jonlyah Watkins.

In other crime-fighting news, my friend Katy Welter sends word of a study about the effects of daylight savings time on crime:

In a publicly available working paper, the researchers conclude that DST reduced robbery by 51 percent, murder by 43 percent and rape by 56 percent during the “extra” hour of evening daylight. The results were consistent across methods, and the drop in crime was limited to the one-hour period affected by DST. Importantly, offenders did not simply “reallocate” crime to a later part of the day, as overall daily crime totals in the three weeks following DST also fell significantly. DST appeared to have no effects on motor vehicle theft, swindling, forgery or burglary.

The authors attributed the drop to deterrent effect more than incapacitation. In layman’s terms, that means better lighting increases the likelihood of being seen by witnesses or police, which in turn discourages criminal activity.

Welter suggests “double summer time,” a phrase that’s hard to argue with; DST becomes permanent, and then we shift ahead another hour: “Chicago lies at that eastern edge of the Central time zone, and thus endures a relatively early summer sunset, making it ripe for a policy like Double Summer Time." 

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comments
1 year ago
Posted by MrJM

"politically popular but perhaps analytically weak"

If it were also privately profitable, it would be perfect for Rahm's Chicago.

-- MrJM

1 year ago
Posted by almartin

Not just not paying your citation - in NYC the tickets are a summons to appear. Miss your appearance date (out of town, in my case) = bench warrant!

http://www.pinksummons.com/pinksummonsoffenses.html#ParkAfterDark

It seems to function so that the police have leverage over anyone that they have regular contact with -- the content of the warrants listed here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/06/nyregion/06fugitive.html?smid=twit
seem relatively minor, all things being equal.

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