In January, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced that 200 police officers were going to be reassigned to patrol work. Two weeks later, McCarthy had more news for Chicago residents: He is proposing an ordinance to authorize arrests for unpaid tickets for public urination, public consumption of alcohol, and gambling—“the three top complaints,” he said, from Chicago residents.
“Fixing the little things prevents the bigger things,” said McCarthy, a longtime advocate of the “broken windows” approach to fighting crime. “Broken windows” is the brainchild of social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who claimed that unrepaired windows, litter, and other signs of neighborhood decay constitute an announcement that a neighborhood has stopped taking responsibility for the quality of life in its public spaces. The next step is for responsible citizens to start moving out—and for lawbreakers to move in.
Expectations for Superintendent McCarthy’s new initiative are high. When New York City instituted its “broken windows” campaign in the mid-1980s, crime began to drop dramatically—and it is still falling, with the homicide rate there at a 40-year low. Chicago is hoping for similar results, but some observers are skeptical.
One set of questions centers around whether the new Chicago initiative actually constitutes a “broken windows” approach. Arrests for public urination, drinking in public, and gambling are signs that police are paying attention—but that doesn’t mean that the surrounding neighborhood is taking ownership of the quality of life in its streets, homes, and businesses.
On the other hand, the new Chicago initiative may be a sign that police are focusing more of their attention on maintaining order—a police function that began to disappear when police turned their attention instead to fighting crime, according to James Q. Wilson. If Wilson is right that order restores community pride and confidence, Chicago may indeed see a reduction in crime.
But some observers are warning that Chicago’s high crime rate may require more drastic solutions. First, there is no guarantee that “broken windows” actually caused the dramatic drop in New York’s crime rates. Perhaps the true cause was legalized abortion (fewer unwanted children being born) or New York’s high incarceration rate—or some other as-yet-unknown factor that caused crime to begin a steady drop not only in New York, but across much of the United States. Chicago has bucked the general trend toward lower crime rates, suggesting that criminal behavior there resists common-sense solutions.
A recent CNN report offers a different theory about high crime rates in Chicago: Perhaps the cause is medical, rather than social. There are no Level 1 trauma centers in the South Side of Chicago, where most of the violent crimes occur. Perhaps high homicide rates persist because victims of shootings, stabbings, and other forms of violence do not get lifesaving medical care in time.
And then there’s the problem of widely available guns. Although Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the US, guns are widely available, gang violence is rampant, and innocent bystanders often get caught in the crossfire. On March 12 a six-month-old girl died from the crossfire of a gang-related shooting; her father—also wounded—is reportedly a gang member. Gun violence in Chicago also made national news in January when a teenage girl who performed at the presidential Inauguration was killed by gunshots a few weeks later.
But perhaps the tide is turning. In February, Chicago reported its lowest monthly homicide rate since 1957. No one can predict whether Superintendent McCarthy’s new initiatives will further reduce violence in one of the most dangerous cities in the US. One thing is certain, however: Something has to be done, and many observers are hopeful that the tide is turning at last.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.