By now, you’ve shaken your head and chalked it up to just another sign that the apocalypse is upon us: The fact that there was a drag-racing “meetup” on I-95, resulting in the fatal shooting by police of one of the alleged participants. My heart goes out to the young man’s family; they’re questioning the police’s account.
That dispute will eventually work out. But let’s back up here for a minute. Yes, Center City is safer, and, yes, Philadelphia’s murder rate, in keeping with the post-pandemic trend across the country, is significantly down, near 20 percent so far this year. And yet …n public disorder is most certainly up. Trash-strewn streets, subway turnstile jumping, hordes of ATV riders taking over our roads and drowning out the beautiful noises of a city, and, now, drag racing on our major highway in the dead of night?
It all puts me in mind of a moment about seven years ago, when I was having coffee in a picturesque public park with Jeremy Nowak, the late, legendary public intellectual and founding chairman of The Citizen. He’d long been an innovator when it came to developing public spaces, and there we were, trying to talk, while a group of women nearby cackled and spoke at a deafening decibel level. Jeremy was famously pugnacious.
“This type of reckless and aggressive behavior cannot and will not be tolerated,” Kenney said in a statement. Outlaw called it “totally unacceptable.”
“You know you’re not at home, right?” he barked at them. “There are other people here.” He glared; they were sheepishly apologetic. Jeremy turned to me.
“That’s the greatest risk to all this,” he said, sweeping his hand across our view of a park with kids playing and lovers picnicking. “That people will forget they share public spaces with other people and we’ll normalize anti-social behavior.”
Man, if only Jeremy were here to read the Inquirer’s astonishing — and by astonishing I mean bad — account of our latest manifestation of his warning. Twice, reporter Layla Jones refers to these dead of night drag racing “meetups” as a “hobby.” You know, like collecting stamps.
“Drag racing has a deep history everywhere from Philadelphia to Oakland, Calif., where organizers began pushing to legalize the hobby,” she writes. “Locally, hundreds of car enthusiasts with their vehicles and onlookers may meet at popular spots in the city to race and perform auto stunts. The gatherings can be organized or impromptu.”
Later in the piece, after non-critically defining the tricks of the drag racing trade — “burnouts,” “drifting” and “donuts” — Jones gives cursory mention of some of the tragic consequences drag racing has wreaked on our public streets. Turns out, there have been deaths in 2013, 2015, and 2018, including the horrific killing of a young mother and three of her sons on Roosevelt Boulevard. What a shocker, right, that essentially weaponizing automobiles for, uh, some fun has actually killed people?
To their credit, Mayor Kenney and police commissioner Danielle Outlaw were far less cheerleader-y. “This type of reckless and aggressive behavior cannot and will not be tolerated,” Kenney said in a statement. Outlaw called it “totally unacceptable.”
Not quite so exercised was our shoulder-shrugging district attorney, Larry Krasner, calling it “flash activity that happens all at once where it’s very hard to identify exactly who was there, and people scatter quickly; that’s a challenge. That’s very hard.”
Yes, finding criminals is hard, dude. But isn’t that the job you sought?
Holding the fabric of cities together
Cities are very fragile experiments in how to live together. There’s nothing rational about them: Let’s take all these different people from different backgrounds, have them live in close proximity to one another, and we’ll see what happens! It only works when citizens buy into a shared set of norms. When there’s accord around a social contract, folks tend to treat public roadways like the shared spaces they are. And it only works when the public story of a city purposefully underscores its common themes.
I’m a big believer that cities need newspapers of record for just that reason. But when our paper of record again and again uses euphemisms like “meetup” for dangerous, anti-social, and criminal behavior (you ever hold a meeting in the middle of I-95 at 3 in the morning?), it becomes complicit in the spread of disorder.
This is what Mayor Michael Nutter knew when he outlawed ATV bikes more than a decade ago: that disorder is viral in nature. Lo and behold, now that the ATV ban is utterly unenforced, it sends a signal that lawlessness reigns. Back then, Nutter was taking a cue from New York City’s historic reestablishment of order through the use of Broken Windows policing.
Oh, no, he didn’t. 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, on the other hand, is a theory of policing that mitigates the virus of disorder, something much needed in a city 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, knowing that, so long as they don’t exceed $500 in stolen goods from a CVS, our district attorney is unlikely to charge them with theft.
Of course, this is bigger than just a policing problem. There’s a widespread sense that Philadelphia has become Gotham — no matter how many statistics I cite that things are getting safer.
Broken Windows grew out of an Atlantic magazine article written in the 1980s 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 on I-95 to the 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.)
More than a policing problem
How do you apply Broken Windows policing to the phenomenon of drag racing “meetups?” Well, you monitor social media — where the Inquirer’s Jones reports many of these meetings are, uh, called to order — and you practice proactive policing in response, tactics that can range from showing up at the scene and dispersing, or if need be, arresting perpetrators. Yes, proactive policing focuses on “hot spots” and pays attention to minor offenses before they become big ones, but it also uses intelligence to get to the scene of a crime before it’s committed.
Of course, this is bigger than just a policing problem. There’s a widespread sense that Philadelphia has become Gotham — no matter how many statistics I cite that things are getting safer. A few months ago, I was driving north on 20th Street when the asshole in front of me threw a giant Slurpee out of his car window. I laid on my horn and flashed my lights. When he stopped for a red light, coward that I am, I thought better of pulling up alongside him and admonishing him. (I come from a long line of cowards; my late uncle, Leo Yeslow, shot himself in the foot, Klinger-like, while serving in the Army in order to get a ticket home during World War II.)
But that idea of admonishment? That’s a crucial part of citizenship, no? That’s why institutions like media outlets need to call out anti-social behavior for what it is. Not because we’re down on Philly. But because, just like Jeremy Nowak demonstrated in that public park some years ago, those of us who partake in the grand experiment of city living need constant reminding that other people share our space.
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