Re-Learning the Lessons of the Past

There was a time in my early adulthood when many believed that American cities would soon become uninhabitable. New York City was the prototype: crime and social decay had made the city a dystopia. Many expected New York to collapse, and other cities to follow.

It didn’t happen, because New York’s officials–most notably Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton, although others were involved–adopted the philosophy of Broken Windows policing. That policy proved remarkably effective, and made New York City livable again. George Kelling, who played a major role in developing the Broken Windows philosophy, told the story in 2009 in How New York Became Safe: The Full Story. Other cities followed New York’s lead, and in the end, the only American urban area that arguably succumbed to a crime-driven death spiral was Detroit.

George Kelling died yesterday, and Heather Mac Donald has written a fine tribute to him and to the public safety methods he developed and advocated for, at City Journal:

Go to a police-community meeting in any troubled neighborhood—whether the South Side of Chicago or South Central Los Angeles—and you will rarely hear complaints about what most criminologists call “serious” crimes, such as robbery or shootings. Instead, residents will plead for surcease from open-air drug dealing, the unruly teens colonizing corners, loud music, and other affronts to civility. Kelling recognized this yearning for public order among the poor and in so doing created one of the most important contributions to urban policy in the last half century: the Broken Windows theory of policing.
In the 1990s, Kelling chaired a panel at Rutgers University (where he taught) on whether the New Jersey State Police were engaged in “racial profiling.” The panel rightly challenged the conventional wisdom among political and journalistic elites that racially disparate car stop-and-arrest rates indicate police racism, rather than racially disparate rates of offending.

Kelling endured withering attacks for his public-order advocacy. Ivory tower criminologists and law professors view order-maintenance policing as a pretext to oppress minorities. A Columbia University law professor, Bernard Harcourt, has made a career arguing that Broken Windows enforcement is racist.

The tragedy is that, although the facts are in and the data are incontestable, we are still fighting the same old battle. The Left is more insistent than ever that effective policing is “racist,” whatever that means when the primary beneficiaries of such strategies are the minority residents of high-crime neighborhoods. Heather concludes:

The endgame for much of academia and for “progressives” is to eliminate proactive policing in minority neighborhoods. These critics remain wedded to the idea that crime can be lowered only by solving its alleged root causes: racism and poverty. Kelling asserted the opposite: that constitutional, responsive policing is the best hope that law-abiding residents of high crime areas have to live free from fear, a right that people in safer neighborhoods take for granted. Portraying the police as a force for evil is one of the most destructive consequences of the 1960s revolt against traditional authority. George Kelling’s empirically based wisdom revived the understanding that protecting public order is an essential and humane function of government—and that the viability of cities rests on respect for the law.

George Kelling, RIP.