Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his new police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, have pledged to keep the pressure on so-called “quality of life” crimes. This is not just smart policing; it’s smart politics.
New Yorkers have no desire to see the panhandlers and squeegee men creep back into prominence on New York City streets — even though since Sept. 11 the police must also deal with heightened demands for basic security against far greater physical threats. If anything, the public demand for order has probably intensified during the past eight years, as citizens have discovered that civic virtue does not require tolerating routine confrontations with people who are annoying or intimidating.
A July poll sponsored by the Citizens Crime Commission, a nonprofit research organization, shows New Yorkers strongly support enforcement of quality-of-life laws, like those against graffiti-writing or aggressive panhandling. Moreover, the poll showed the feeling is widely shared. African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans all favor quality-of-life enforcement even more strongly than whites. On a scale of 1 to 20, with 20 representing the highest level of support, whites averaged a score of 14.6, while African-Americans averaged 15.3, Hispanics 15.2 and Asian-Americans 15.5.
There are still critics of “broken-windows policing” — the idea that strongly enforcing laws against minor infractions discourages more serious crimes by sending a signal that the community is in control. But research sponsored by the Manhattan Institute and conducted in late 2000 and early 2001 in New York City finds that increased arrests for misdemeanors are closely associated with reductions in violent crime. The research also shows that with proper training and guidance for police officers, this policy can be conducted without disregarding civil rights, as many quality-of-life opponents have feared.
The breakthrough for the Police Department into the realm of quality-of-life offenses was Mr. Kelly’s decision to take on “squeegee men” during his first stint as police commissioner — a plan developed by the fall of 1993. The issue is thus familiar to him. On his own, Mr. Kelly broke with the Police Department’s earlier traditions of a hands-off policy toward minor offenses. Before implementing the policy, he patiently awaited a thorough analysis of the problem and the emergence of promising tactics to deal with it. Moreover, Mr. Kelly was able to tap into a strong public demand for order that had been developing in the city since the 1970’s, as businesses and community groups formed to clean public spaces, for example.
The department’s three current guiding principles — restore order, focus on solving local problems, hold local commanders accountable for dealing with those problems â€” provide a solid foundation for continued police development. There seems little reason to fear that Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Kelly will back away from these principles. Not only do they work, but they are what the public wants.