Sunday, March 4, 2012

The dossier closes on James Q. Wilson

Crime sociologist James Q. Wilson, earthly coinventor of "broken windows" policing and inspirer of Compstat, has gone to the booking desk in the sky at the age of 80.

Picture the eternal judge of your choice glancing up from an eternal database at this latest defendant arrived from Earth, and consider:

Wilson was a guru to the Giuliani/Bratton school of policing, which holds that systematic pettiness in enforcing "order" prevents more serious crime. In many respects it's a foolish, cruel approach. It divides citizens, based on superficial cues in appearance and behavior, into people who do and don't qualify for the equal protection of the laws -- into customers and non-customers. It's the mentality of mobsters who want their customers to feel safe enough to spend freely at their casinos, and never mind what happens to others behind closed doors or out back of the parking lot.

Wilson's "broken windows" approach is memorably explained in his 1982 Atlantic article with George L. Kelling. Kelling, in the right-wing City Journal, recently claimed that it's "How New York became safe."

Some reasonable minds do defend the approach -- cf. Gopnik in an otherwise liberal New Yorker critique of the imprisonment epidemic, as I mentioned a few days ago. But it has its eloquent, well-supported critics. For example, Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago Law School and Jens Ludwig of Georgetown debunked the theory's specific application to New York in 2006 (paper downloadable here). They found that the rise and decline of the crack epidemic had far more to do with New York City crime figures.

People sometimes conflate "broken windows" policing with Jane Jacobs' notion of "eyes on the street," but as I discussed in this post a year ago, they're really opposites. "Broken windows" is an antidemocratic philosophy of centralized bureaucratic control that doesn't trust people on a street to get along without authoritarian help. "Eyes on the street" is the democratic, locally based notion that neighbors who get to know each other tend to look after each other and maintain codes of decent behavior. "Broken windows" policing prefers a desolate street to a street with homeless people on it, even though homeless people can themselves serve as valuable "eyes on the street" -- potential witnesses and rescuers able to discourage crime.

"Broken windows" is why policemen walk around subway stations looking for fare evaders when they could be chasing burglars or solving car break-ins. It's why, if a homeless woman sleeps in her car, police are more likely to tow her car for a petty registration offense than to watch over her safety as she sleeps. It's arguably why, one day last month, a massive Berkeley police presence was wasted on the potential for disorder represented by a small knot of 40 peaceful protest marchers, causing a fatal delay in responding to calls for help from 67-year-old Peter Cukor, who was murdered by a schizophrenic wingnut at his house in the hills.

Wilson's other claim to fame, the statistic-based "Compstat" policing process, keeps sending extra police back to areas that have high crime statistics until those figures decline. It has been criticized as creating vicious loops of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you assign more cops to a block, they'll look for more actions they can label as crimes, so they'll find more crimes, so it will look like a high-crime block where special measures need to be taken to restore order.... Conversely, Compstat has also been criticized for leading officers to shave down statistics to look good.

So with Wilson gone, I'm wondering if he, and the official personalities that his work has shaped, are ready for a new literary archetype in their honor.

Past generations explored the minds of zealous crimefighters, from Inspector Javert to Dirty Harry, who paid for their work in their hollowed-out souls. But those tragic figures retained some personal dignity in pursuing genuine crimes such as burglary and murder. Do we have a literary archetype yet for the panoptical impresario of petty stickling?

Big Brother, yes, we have that idea -- that is, we already expect that a totalitarian government catches and punishes tiny rebellions to stop them from growing into assertions of freedom. But Big Brother is a fiction -- a personification of a system. Minions of such systems are all about dramatically cruel, obviously unjust responses to dissent. That, or they're Orwell's "beetle-like" functionaries who lack grand ambitions.

But, now, what about the actual high official in the office looking at the screen, the one who, in a state of high importancy, with ambitions that are very grand indeed, dispatches the forces of order to issue misdemeanor and infraction citations for turnstile-jumping, graffiti scribbling, obstruction of the sidewalk? Citations that are individually arguable, that are unjust only when viewed in the aggregate as cases of selective enforcement or as a cumulative chilling influence on the population's indefinable sense of personal freedom in public spaces? What goes on in the soul of a dedicated official who believes, to some extent accurately, that a systematic war of harassment against minor public irregularity serves and protects a democratically governed city? Do we have a portrait yet of that person's very special kind of soul?

Genet's *The Balcony* imagined the addition of "chief of police" to the pantheon of authoritarian fantasy: by the usual law of opposites-attract, that's how the leader of the rebellion chooses to imagine himself in private. Right now art is a little slow in imitating life. I don't think we yet have a costume ready at the theater for budding liberal reformers to wear in playing "chief of Compstat".

Soon enough, though. Soon enough.

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