Crime is more than Broken Windows

Star Tribune editorialist Steve Berg’s article on crime and the related editorial suggest that the “broken window” approach to solving crime, used successfully in New York City, might be applied to Minneapolis.

Stripped of the rhetoric, however, this strategy implies two things:

(1) Crime fighting will increasingly consist of applying pressure upon property owners who need to fix windows and make other repairs as opposed to applying increased pressure on persons who actually commit crimes.

(2) As the police pay increased attention to lazy or slovenly behavior, the line may be blurred between this and behavior which is deliberately criminal in nature.

Yes, it might help to reduce crime if all property owners in the city kept their properties in tip-top shape. But is this degree of diligence owed city government? The problem is that, while the city sets high standards for city residents in regard to maintaining property, it accepts no standards for performance by the police. When the police fail to respond to urgent calls for help, city residents are often told that police personnel are stretched thin by budget cuts. They are told there are higher priorities.

Let me note that this call for the city’s property owners to assume greater responsibility for crime is occurring in the context of sharply rising property taxes. Since the market will not allow rental-property owners to pass these costs along to tenants, some operate at a loss. They and homeowners are now being asked to accept the city’s financial excuses for its failure to control crime while being cut no slack in the maintenance area. City officials shift the burden of crime-fighting responsibility upon property owners because they can.

I have found that city officials show little interest in dialoguing with such people except on their own terms. Several years ago, a group of inner-city landlords presented elected officials in Minneapolis with a written list of proposals for how landlords might work with the police to address crime. There has been no response whatsoever to this initiative. It seems that Minneapolis city officials have landlords where they want them - in a scapegoat position - and have little interest in changing the relationship. The focus is and has been upon “problem properties” rather than individual criminals.

I believe that a large part of the problem is that the city police do apprehend and arrest persons for criminal activity but these people are quickly released. Anecdotally, we hear of certain individuals being arrested and released 40, 50, or 60 times without meaningful consequences. It may be that judges do not sentence criminals to prison because of lack of prison space. The onus, then, is upon the Hennepin County judiciary, public prosecutors, corrections officials, the state legislature, the Governor, and others to develop an effective crime-fighting strategy, not just the Minneapolis police.

I also believe that the intimidating issue of racism complicates law-enforcement efforts. While the police must be under a high degree of discipline to act fairly and impartially with respect to race, their highest priority is to deter crime. The city’s elected officials should use their political capital to send a clear message that racism, imagined or real, is no excuse for violent crime. Criminal activity in this city will be punished.

Finally, we should recognize that criminals are not born but made. I do not think that the city and other agencies have done nearly enough to fund programs that steer people at a vulnerable age away from crime into more useful activities. Even if we cannot provide high-paying jobs for everyone, there need to be more places to welcome people from off the street, more athletic programs, more entertainment, more serious conversation, or whatever will help young people socialize and display their talents. Too often we treat people as problems when we have neglected to provide opportunities for them to prove otherwise.

In summary, the “broken window” approach to crime will not fly unless the city shows it is serious about meeting its own responsibilities. A cooperative rather than confrontational approach should be made to property owners and others in addressing our common problem of crime.

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