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Monday, November 21, 2005

Denver looks to Broken Windows Theory for help

Rocky Mountain News
Denver cops may go under crime analyst's microscope

By Lou Kilzer, Rocky Mountain News
November 21, 2005

The man widely credited with bringing down crime in New York City and its subways is headed west to diagnose Denver's ailing police department.

George Kelling says only a signature on a contract remains to be penned before he and his group of criminologists begin their study.

If Kelling and Mayor John Hickenlooper sign on the bottom line - and on Friday that seemed almost assured - Denver police may be in for a wild ride.

The mayor wants Kelling, a professor at Rutgers University and a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, to analyze city crime, police strategies and police organization.

That's a big order, but one not new to Kelling.

Two decades ago, he lead a revolution in how police should go about their business - coining a phrase "broken windows" as a metaphor for what was wrong in American law enforcement.

Let broken windows - or small crimes - go unrepaired, and criminals believe there is no property owner. They take over. Fix those windows and the criminals can be contained.

Kelling's ideas have since won deep respect in certain communities, but nagging skepticism in others.

He advocates overthrowing much of the top-down, bureaucratic, rule-saturated command structure that evolved in U.S. police departments over the past century.

Instead, he says patrol officers and their immediate supervisors should take more ownership of their precincts. He says that detectives and special squads at headquarters often should give way to decentralized commands where more localized police get to know their communities' needs.

The goal is to tackle crime - starting with those broken windows.

Three months after a controversy erupted over Denver's plunging arrest rates, this much is clear today: The sharpest drops are precisely in those "quality of life" crimes that Kelling says must be attacked.

"Take care of minor crime," he says, "and major crime can be prevented."

A bureaucratic straitjacket

Kelling talks of a time in the late 1970s when he and his wife were walking in New York's Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Small-time dope dealers were openly doing their business while nearby cops stood by, ignoring them.

Kelling says a bureaucratic straitjacket told the officers that dope dealing was the responsibility of narcotics officers, not street cops.

Police, Kelling felt, had to change their priorities and organization.

In Kelling's view, order is king. If citizens feel there is order in the environment, fear abates and people take possession of their sidewalks.

Evidence of disorder - aggressive panhandlers, drunks and loitering youths - begets fear and avoidance of ownership. That's fertile ground for crime.

Robert Kiley, New York's transportation chief under then-Mayor David Dinkins, adopted some of Kelling's notions and applied them to the city's subways.

Police had mostly surrendered to graffiti-taggers in the New York subways. But using some of Kelling's ideas, authorities refused to put tagged cars into service and aggressively fought the taggers. It took five years, but the graffiti disappeared.

By then, Kiley asked Kelling for help on other subway problems.

What was born was called Operation Enforcement - targeting those who made subway commuting sometimes a frightening experience.

That's where Kelling fell on the outs with some homeless advocates and civil libertarians. They argued that the plan discriminated against certain groups and denied them free speech. In 1990, a court ruled in their favor.

That decision was eventually overturned, and police strongly enforced quality of life issues in the subways.

They even put emphasis on toll cheaters - those who jumped the turnstiles to avoid paying.

"When police in New York took on fare beaters, some stations found one in 10 had warrants or were carrying drugs or weapons," Kelling says. Enforcing the small crime led to arrests for a larger one.

It paid off in the subways. Crime dropped and citizens felt safer.

When Rudy Giuliani became New York's mayor in 1993, "he bought into broken windows in a big way," Kelling says.

Soon, New York's crime rate overall plummeted.

Fixing crime on the street

Broken windows enforcement goes hand-in-hand with decentralized policing, Kelling says.

Empowering street cops in the battle against crime is the only way that it can all work.

Kelling likens a typical police department to a rubber band. It can be stretched and twisted, but eventually it snaps back into place. And that place is top-down management where the priority is to chase "serious crime" in a quasi-military manner.

Kelling wants to distribute policing authority away from headquarters.

"Community policing doesn't mean feel-good policing," Kelling says, it means strict quality of life enforcement issues as well as major crimes.

Kelling says that a typical patrol officer spends well over half his time uninvolved in answering calls. That's the nature of the business.

If properly led, officers could use this slack time to play both community referee and mediator.

Instead, strict rules from headquarters - in an attempt to prevent corruption or mistakes - often make a patrolman hesitate.

Kelling has written that "these measures - referred to by at least one of their advocates as 'management by terror' - have also created an ethos throughout the department of 'staying out of trouble.' The surest way to stay out of trouble, of course, is to do nothing."

That echoes what many Denver cops have told the Rocky Mountain News in the past three months. Often, they say, their daily mission is to answer 911 calls. They are cautious about so-called "discretionary enforcement" - the kinds of law work that bring officers and citizens together in ambiguous situations. In other words, the kinds of situations that can result in a citizen complaint.

Root causes not addressed

Civil libertarians have challenged Kelling's theories, pointing to what they see as root causes of crime - racism, social injustice and poverty - areas that the broken windows philosophy largely ignores.

Kelling does not dispute root causes, but he insists that "we don't have to hold our hands and wait" for root causes to be sutured.

David Thacher, a University of Michigan associate professor, has written that "social science has not been kind to the broken windows theory," according to the Wikipedia encyclopedia.

According to Thacher, some studies have "concluded that the relationship between disorder and serious crime is modest, and even that relationship is largely an artifact of more fundamental social forces."

And then there is the sharp drop in New York crime, where homicides dropped from about 2,200 a year in the early 1990s to under 500.

The rest of the country also saw dramatic drops in serious crime during the same period, although not at the same pace as New York.

Kelling says parts of his theories were widely adopted across the nation. Still, he agrees that many factors were at work to bring crime down in the '90s.

Police began seeing they weren't merely responding to incidents, but to problems, and they began working more closely with neighborhood groups, including the clergy.

And as violent felons were released from prisons, parole officers and others exerted more control, reducing recidivism. The '90s also were the first decade of widely distributed computing. Cops began making better use of statistics.

And, of course, Kelling says, many jurisdictions adopted aspects of broken windows.

Joseph Sandoval, chairman of the criminal justice and criminology department at Metropolitan State College of Denver, says that he once might have been more skeptical of Kelling's theories. But no longer.

"Broken windows has its place," he says. "Small peccadilloes can advance to some greater offenses. An atmosphere is created that allows folks to test the edge of tolerance."

George Kelling

• Age: 70

• Occupation: Professor in the School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University; fellow in Program of Criminal Justice Policy and Manage- ment, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; adjunct fellow, Manhattan Institute; principal, Hanover Justice Group.

• Education: Bachelor's degree, philosophy, St. Olaf College, Minnesota, 1956; doctorate, social welfare, University of Wisconsin, 1973.

• Work history: Probation officer, Minneapolis, 1959-1960; assistant superintendent of detention, Milwaukee County, Wis., 1962-1964; various other child welfare and academic posts, 1965 to present; has authored more than 60 publications.

• Residence: Kelling and his wife live in New Hampshire. They have two children and five grandchildren.

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