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It’s Time to Declare War on Disorder

Looting. Unprosecuted shoplifting. ATVs running amok. A judge dismissing charges against a killer cop. Drag racing in the dead of night. Can we reverse the message that rules no longer apply?

It’s Time to Declare War on Disorder

Looting. Unprosecuted shoplifting. ATVs running amok. A judge dismissing charges against a killer cop. Drag racing in the dead of night. Can we reverse the message that rules no longer apply?

In the post-mortem press conference of Tuesday night’s looting throughout the city, Interim Police Commissioner John Stanford went to great pains to make clear that those who broke into stores to steal and destroy property had nothing to do with the protest that preceded the marauding mob. That was a peaceful gathering in reaction to Judge Wendy Pew’s mystifying dismissal of all charges for the shooting and killing of Eddie Irizzary by police officer Mark Dial. What followed, Stanford said, was committed by “criminal opportunists” who were “taking advantage of a situation” and trying “to destroy our city … This had nothing to do with the protests.”

He’s no doubt right, on one level. But on another, his analysis begs some deeper context. Judging by the social media chatter, it was anger over the judge’s ruling that at least prompted some chatter about an anti-social response: “WHAT TIME WE GOING SHOPPING?” read one post.

But let’s widen our lens even further. There’s plenty of evidence, which we’ll get to, that civic disorder is viral in nature. Citizenship is, after all, a social compact. We live together voluntarily, and when messages get sent time and again that our once agreed-upon rules no longer apply, or that they only apply to some, we know what happens: The compact breaks. We get anarchy. We get nihilism. We get streets that feel unsafe, even if crime rates are coming down.

We are in a crisis of disorder

Make no mistake: Philadelphia, like other cities, finds itself in a crisis of disorder — the bigger picture Stanford didn’t touch on. Think about the messages Philadelphia sends out every day: Shoplifting under $500 is all but legal now. ATVs can menacingly roar through city streets with impunity, despite a law signed by former Mayor Michael Nutter banning the same. So-called drag racing “meet-ups” are hijacking city roads and highways in the dead of night. In Kensington, police practice a policy of containment when it comes to perhaps the most dystopian scene in the nation. And now, a municipal court judge extends a special privilege and lets a police officer walk for an act that certainly warranted a full hearing in a court of law.

“Our clients never get to argue a justification defense at a preliminary hearing,” Keisha Hudson of the Defender Association of Philadelphia wrote in a statement after Pew’s stunning dismissal of the charges against Dial. “Instead, our clients — all of whom are poor and almost exclusively Black and Brown people — have their cases held for trial, and they sit in jail for months awaiting their day in court.”

Obviously, this is no excuse for looting and rioting and other antisocial acts. But how many times do we have to see that law-breaking is contagious when laws are not enforced? Which brings us back to the broken windows theory of policing, which I’ve written about before.

“We found that when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate even other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread.” — researchers in a Science study.

Oh, no, he didnt. Isn’t broken windows discredited? No. A Northeastern University study — which was essentially a study of studies — tried to debunk it, but unwittingly validated it. (“Disorder does not encourage crime, but makes it easier to commit crimes” essentially parrots the theory.) But wasn’t broken windows racist? Hells, no. In the popular debate, broken windows has often erroneously gotten lumped in with stop-and-frisk tactics — and the concomitant legitimate concerns of racial profiling.

Broken windows, which legendary former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton employed to turn around crime rates in both New York and Los Angeles, is a theory of policing that mitigates against the virus of disorder. That’s much needed in a city where a judge refuses to hold a cop accountable, where kids are drag racing at 2am, where shots ring out on crowded streets, and where shoplifters are effectively playing The Price Is Right in retail outlets every day.

Broken windows grew out of an Atlantic magazine article written in 1982 by Harvard’s James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University. At a time when policing was mostly reactive, they argued that small things matter in communities, and that when nothing is done about the small things, they grow to become big things. Prior to his passing a few years ago, Kelling explained in Politico:

We expressed this in a metaphor. Just as a broken window left untended in a building is a sign that nobody cares, leading typically to more broken windows — more damage — so disorderly conditions and behaviors left untended in a community are signs that nobody cares and lead to fear of crime, more serious crime, and urban decay. Good broken windows policing seeks partners to address it: social workers, city code enforcers, business improvement district staff, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, and others. Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort — not the first.

Here’s what’s critical: They came to this conclusion by actually listening to those in poor, mostly minority, communities who were most proximate to the problem. Even in neighborhoods with high murder rates, residents would list comparatively minor transgressions like graffiti, teens drinking beer in public parks, and subway turnstile jumping as their top concerns. Why? Because they’d seen the degree to which, once those conditions ran rampant, gun violence was not far behind. Add drag racing and judges who make up the rules as they go along to that list, right?

Alas, once Michael Brown was killed by police after being stopped for jaywalking in Ferguson and Eric Garner was choked to death by New York police for selling loose cigarettes, broken windows fell out of favor. But those tragedies were not actual examples of broken windows policing, which was never intended to be about making arrests. (In fact, a 2013 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that broken windows led to decarceration.)

A 2008 study published in Science provides some concrete examples of disorder as contagion. In one experiment, researchers wanted to see if people were more likely to steal amid signs of disorder. They left an envelope visibly stuffed with cash hanging out of a mailbox. Only 13 percent of passersby stole the envelope when the mailbox was graffiti free and there was no litter on the ground around it. Yet, when the mailbox was covered with graffiti, 27 percent stole the envelope, and when litter piled up around the mailbox, 25 percent took the envelope.

“We found that when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate even other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread,” the researchers reported.

So this is no call for mass incarceration. Yes, we need law enforcement to step up. To not simply contain, but to make it clear there are real consequences for breaking the social compact. But, as Derek Lux recently argued in City Journal, we need to get away from excusing lawbreakers and instead return to the days when we shamed criminals. “Crime is prevented not just through law enforcement but also through the messages would-be offenders absorb about how society feels about criminality,” he writes.

Calling out bad behavior for what it is

Take these two contrasting responses. In Chicago, Mayor Brandon Johnson has reacted to what that city is calling “teen takeovers” — looting, property damage, blocking traffic, creating chaos in the streets — by essentially defending the indefensible. He objected to the term “mob action” and called these harrowing acts of lawlessness “large gatherings” that are “unacceptable and [have] no place in our city. However, it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

That type of “on the one hand, on the other” messaging is one way to respond. Another would be the tone taken by then-Mayor Michael Nutter when Philadelphia was awash in youth “flash mobs” in 2011. He declared a state of emergency and instituted a curfew, yes, but he also took to the pulpit at West Philly’s Mount Carmel Baptist Church and unambiguously publicly shamed those who took part in these anti-social acts … and their parents.

“This nonsense must stop.” — former Mayor Michael Nutter, to flash mobs in 2011

“This nonsense must stop,” he said, his voice rising. “If you want to act like a butthead, your butt is going to get locked up. And if you want to act like an idiot, move. Move out of this city. We don’t want you here any more.” He told the flash mobbers that they’d “damaged your own race” and he told their fathers they need to be more than “sperm donors … and human ATMs.”

Nutter combined the levers of law enforcement with the type of public shaming Lux prescribes. Lo and behold, the next summer, flash mobbing was a thing of the past. Both Mayor Kenney and our presumptive next mayor, Cherelle Parker, condemned the looting in no uncertain terms, to their credit. But neither reached for the type of bigger-picture public shaming that just might be the best way to turn around a culture of lawlessness.

Lux points out that Asian countries have a stunningly low rate of criminal offending compared to the United States. Many factors can explain the differential, but certainly one has to be the Asian culture of shame: “It is not uncommon to see ‘walls of shame’ in Asian retail stores displaying photos of shoplifters,” Lux writes. “Singapore’s Yishun Mall posts shoplifters’ faces and physical descriptions; many stores even annotate these posts after the perpetrators are brought to justice. Being arrested doesn’t get your picture taken down.”

In Queens, New York, the innovative Merchants Business Improvement Program borrows from the same proactive playbook. Given the borough’s high rate of shoplifting, Queens DA Melinda Katz said it was “essential that we keep fighting back,” and now business owners can take out restraining orders against suspects who repeatedly steal from their stores or harass their employees. Those who are arrested get slapped with extra trespassing charges. Go into bodegas in Queens now, and you’re likely to see walls plastered with photos of those who keep terrorizing local shopkeepers.

All of these approaches — the shaming culture in Asia, the rhetoric from elected leaders that rallies the public will, and the use of restraining orders and trespassing charges in Queens — all of it says to a populace: We’re not going to stand for this. They make the average citizen feel like someone’s on the case and on their side. Which, after all, is how cities rise or fall. Cities are all about finding common ground among disparate groups and learning how to live together.

In her Martin Scorsese-directed Netflix documentary, the satirist, social commentator and writer Fran Lebowitz can be seen walking the streets of her beloved New York and issuing her tagline to others who seem oblivious to the fact that our streets are shared property: “Pretend it’s a city,” she likes to say, aiming her ire at litterbugs, jaywalkers, double-parkers, turnstile jumpers and dangerous drivers — and, of course, more serious criminal offenders.

That’s the message every Philadelphian needs to hear, from elected leaders, judges, and pundits who default to explaining away conduct that breaks long-accepted norms. Let’s pretend it’s a city and acknowledge that other people, who deserve the same respect we demand for ourselves, share our public spaces.


Photo by Gabe Pierce on Unsplash

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