Seattle, crack down on petty crime: Discovery Institute pres. FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 17 Jun 1998 20:29:54 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Seattle Post-Intelligencer - April 18, 1997

     by Bruce Chapman, president, Discovery Institute, Seattle

Could jaywalking contribute to a climate of lawlessness? Could public
drunkeness? When a former mental patient wielding a sword on a downtown
street can tie up traffic and the police for 11 hours, as happened recently
in Seattle, can we see any relevance to our laws on involuntary treatment?

The answer is "yes" to all these questions. Increasingly, law enforcement
officials across America are finding a connection between the climate of
safety and the crime rate for serious offenses. The constellation of issues
is sometimes called "civic civility" or "quality of life." Mark Sidran,
Seattle City Attorney and a recognized national authority on the subject,
calls it "MOM"--Misdemeanor Order Maintenance.

When Seattle native Dick Page was general manager of Washington, D.C.'s
mass transit authority back in the 80's, I asked him why Washington's
subways seemed cleaner and safer than those of New York. His answer was
that every time an act of vandalism was discovered in Washington's system
the car was removed and repaired immediately. Vandals were discouraged when
they couldn't see their handiwork preserved. In contrast, accepting
graffiti and vandalism--as was New York's practice at the time--seemed to
give silent permission for more of the same.

A decade later, New York got the message, and not only cleaned up its
subways, but also found legal ways to crack down on petty criminals above
ground and underground alike. The public's sense of safety greatly improved
and the crime rate dropped steeply. In the subways, for example, felonies
fell 75%.

Seattle has no subways, but it does have a buding effort to combat petty
infractions of the law. And the crime rate has dropped here, too. Sidran
and other officials have rediscovered that "misdemeanors matter." They
matter to the population at large, but especially to the elderly and poor,
and to derelicts who most often are victimized by criminals.

By neglecting minor offenses an atmosphere of anxiety is created on certain
streets. Seattle has spent public and private money on low income housing
and on public meal programs. Huge sums have been expended on medical care
for inebriates--according to one account, $500,000 over two years was spent
on just five individuals. Yet until recently, crime rates were rising.

Meanwhile, demographic determinists--the people who believe that the size
of a population group makes all the difference--were predicting that a
concurrent rise in crime committed by youth and growth in the numbers of
such youth, predicted a soaring crime rate overall.

Yet, today, though the cohort of young teens is indeed growing, the crime
rate is headed down, showing that it isn't always true that "demography is

Various explanations include stiffer court sentences, anti-violence
campaigns in schools, and even a shift by addicts from crack cocaine, which
tends to abet violence, to heroin, a more sedative drug. But the climate of
crime itself has changed, too, and reforms like MOM seem to be a major

The trouble is, bans on public urination, lounging on the streets, and
agressive panhandling are not enough to carry urban civility much further.
The significant gains of recent years are bringing people back to the
streets, but there are still large parts of Seattle where ordinary citizens
feel unsafe.

Here is what additionally can be done to lower crime rates by emphasizing
misdemeanor order maintenance.

Enforce strict limits on beer and fortified wine sales in high-crime areas
and the districts around them. Bills in the state legislature this session
would strengthen these restrictions.

Make the parks safer by issuing park exclusion orders against repeat
lawbreakers. These orders would prohibit use of a park, or of a list of
at-risk parks, by certain individuals.

Follow Portland's example and stop conducting public feeding programs
outdoors. Such programs tend to concentrate large numbers of dysfunctional
people in one place, leading to sanitation problems and making the rest of
the public feel unwelcome on the streets.

Reopen the complex, but crucial, issue of involuntary treatment. The 1970's
saw an unholy alliance of people who wanted to save money by closing mental
hospitals and libertarians overly-concerned about a few celebrated cases of
people who had been improperly confined. The resulting
"de-institutionalization" led to hundreds of thousands of mentally ill
people residing onAmerica's urban streets.

Take instances of fare-beating (payment avoidance) on Metro buses more

But what about civility shown by you and me? Mark Sidran even wants to
reverse the trend toward toleration of jaywalking. Police citations for
jaywalking dropped from 5900 in 1990 to only 960 in 1995. Scoff-laws are
gratified, while those who still wait for lights to change feel like chumps.

Sidran points out that New York--where jaywalking was notorious--has
started cracking down on this infraction for the first time in 40 years,
and with interesting results. "When police began checking the I.D.'s of the
jaywalkers they cited," Sidran notes, "they started coming up with people
with drugs, warrants pending and illegal handguns."

The moral is, listen to your "MOM".

[Bruce Chapman is president of Discovery Institute in Seattle. His column
appears each Friday.]


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