Street Fight

Last week, the NYPD’s notorious Street Crimes Unit was unceremoniously disbanded – not with the bang of a judicial order but with the whimper of a press conference. From the podium, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explained the move by saying – and perhaps he’s overstating the case a bit – that “we no longer have anything called Street Crime.”

You probably know what he means, though. Crime continues to plunge – a Giuliani legacy that’s hard to argue with. But the reason for that drop is more hotly contested than ever. Just as Reagan’s role in bringing about the fall of Communism continues to spur ideological argument, Giuliani’s legacy (not to speak of his Yankee-stadium deal) is also attracting passionate debate. The success of the police under Giuliani and Bill Bratton has been famously ascribed to the Broken Windows theory: basically that signs of disorder like homelessness or litter actually encourage more violent crime.

But three recent books have contended that Broken Windows has never really been proved – prompting the conservative, Rudy-friendly Manhattan Institute to leap to its champion’s defense. The latest salvo came a few days before Kelly’s announcement, when Bernard E. Harcourt, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, declared in the Boston Review that other cities like San Francisco and San Diego have enjoyed similar crime drops without ratcheting up misdemeanor arrests. He credited national trends like the decline of crack. Broken Windows, Harcourt believes, has been perverted from an appealing beautification project into an excuse to round up homeless people. “What’s left is the realpolitik of the theory,” Harcourt explains. “That’s where you get to arrest more people and do more searches.” Which leads, he implies, to police brutality: Once civilian complaints spiked, “I started to wonder who gets to define orderly and disorderly.”

To Giuliani partisans, this unabashed reappearance of the left seems almost worse than the return of the squeegee men. “It’s just seductive academic radicalism as far as I’m concerned,” says Brian Anderson, an editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. “Harcourt draws heavily from Michel Foucault and French post-structuralists. It’s just so far removed from reality.” At which the Academy scoffs: “We don’t have to worry about the Communists anymore – it’s the French post-structuralists,” says Temple University criminologist Ralph Taylor, whose book Breaking Away From Broken Windows studies Baltimore, claiming quality-of-life perceptions rarely correlated with crime rates.

Harcourt’s argument does have a few semantic whoppers. In his book Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing, he writes, “Urinating in the street signals that rules have broken down only if the meaning of public urination is associated with rule breaking.” (Perhaps things just flow more freely in his neighborhood.) But do Broken Windows’ numbers really not check out? George Kelling, who co-wrote the original “Broken Windows” essay in the Atlantic in 1982 (and the book Fixing Broken Windows), admits it’s hard to measure quality of life. He tried to do it in a January report for the Manhattan Institute (matching boroughwide and precinct statistics as best he could), which Harcourt tried to debunk. He’s not surprised. “The middle-left hates Giuliani getting credit for crime reduction,” Kelling says. “They held crime control hostage to macro social change since the late sixties. Broken Windows changed that.”

Of course, reassessment happens to most politicians. “I think all mayors go through it,” says Ed Koch. “History takes 50 years.” And sociology is a slippery science: Crime could plunge even more, but social scientists may still be disagreeing on why. Harcourt says that when he spoke to Kelling’s co-author, James Q. Wilson, “He admitted to me that no one has really proven it – ‘but you, Bernard, didn’t disprove it.’ “

Street Fight