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Where are Portland's Broken Windows?

Signs of disorder don't always translate to crime


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hotel concierges are reluctant to send tourists to the Lan Su Chinese Garden, says Jane DeMarco, executive director of the garden, here standing next to a building nearby.Jane DeMarco has a perception problem.

Twice a year, DeMarco, who is the executive director of the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town, and her staff pay courtesy calls to the concierges of the major downtown hotels, asking them to promote the Chinese Garden to out-of-town visitors. However, nearly every one of those concierges tells DeMarco they won’t. They tell her that tourists who walk across Burnside Street and down Northwest Third Avenue’s gauntlet of abandoned buildings and sidewalk-sleeping homeless people “come back very upset,” in DeMarco’s words.

DeMarco can tell those concierges that in 14 years of operation, the Chinese Garden only once has had an intruder jump its wall trying to gain illegal entry. And although those exterior walls are white, they are rarely tagged. Daytime crime against strangers is rare — even in Old Town. Nonetheless, those tourists see the signs of disorder on their walk, DeMarco says, and they feel threatened, even if they’re not.

“They don’t realize they’re OK,” she says.

DeMarco is trying hard to overcome what she sees as a gap between the perception of danger and its reality. At the same time, DeMarco is confronting one of the most contentious philosophical debates in the world of criminal justice.

In 1982, social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling wrote a lengthy piece in The Atlantic Monthly magazine outlining their Broken Windows theory of criminality. Basically, the theory goes, public disorder signals that a neighborhood is not well maintained, which sets off a chain of events that leads to violent crime. Responsible citizens may stay inside and cede the streets to criminals, or they stop riding the buses and trains, which leads to the buses and trains becoming more dangerous. People with criminal tendencies might feel emboldened.

The article emphasized the need for small problems to be quickly addressed, and led to strategies that emphasized police paying more attention to low-level quality-of-life violations.

“Serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window,” Wilson and Kelling wrote.

But if signs of civic disorder are supposed to encourage crime, what to make of Portland? A few weeks ago, DeMarco entertained a retired couple from Manhattan who visit Portland two or three times a year and were upset by the Portland street scene.

“She said, ‘What we see going on would not wash in Manhattan,’” DeMarco recalls.

Portland accepts a level of Broken Windows-style civic disorder that most major U.S. cities won’t tolerate, says the well-traveled DeMarco. And yet, Portland has the nation’s lowest big city homicide rate and the fourth-lowest violent crime rate. Our property crime rate is a little below average. By almost any measure, Portland is a remarkably safe city. It’s not supposed to work that way, say adherents of the Broken Windows theory.

Sharks and dolphins

If Frank Zimring were to talk about Portland’s perceived problem in and around Old Town, he’d probably say that it comes down to sharks and dolphins.

Zimring is the author of “The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control,” in which he looked at the dramatic drop in crime that took place in New York City beginning in the mid-1990’s. The New York crime drop is often attributed to Broken Windows policing initiated by the Rudy Giuliani administration.

Two of the first policing initiatives under Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton focused on clear signs of public disorder: subway turnstile jumpers and squeegee men.

Transit police stationed themselves at turnstiles and arrested those who jumped barriers in order to ride the subways for free. Short, concentrated missions allowed police to arrest men who would jump out at cars stopped at red lights and, unasked, start washing their windows with squeegees and, usually, dirty water. When the light turned green, the men would knock on the driver’s window demanding payment.

What’s important, Zimring says, is what police discovered after their arrests. The squeegee men, for the most part, were not connected in any way to significant criminal activity. But many of the turnstile jumpers had outstanding warrants for previous crimes. Catching them in the act and arresting them probably did prevent future crimes, according to Zimring.

“Fare jumpers wanted to get into the subway not to go anywhere, but to rob people,” Zimring says. “What we’re after are sharks, not dolphins. The people urinating in front of small businesses in Portland are dolphins. They’re not going to stick up anybody.”

Knowing the difference between civic disorder that is simply annoying, and disorder that correlates to significant crime is critical to understanding when Broken Windows works and when it doesn’t, Zimring says. In fact, Zimring says, the Broken Windows theory may have done more harm than good nationwide because in some cities it has encouraged police abuse.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Neglected storefronts and windswept trash are signs of social disorder, say some social scientists. Old Town/Chinatown has its share of both, but stranger on stranger violent crime there--or anywhere in Portland--is still relatively low.

What is acceptable disorder?

University of California-Irvine, criminologist Charis Kubrin doesn’t even buy into the idea that catching turnstile jumpers in New York City contributed to a lower crime rate. She isn’t a fan of Broken Windows at all.

“Tinkering with disorder at the margins isn’t going to have that great an impact on crime and may, in fact, do more harm,” says Kubrin.

To highlight the danger of taking Broken Windows too literally, Kubrin cites the wide-ranging stop and frisk policies that evolved in New York City in recent decades and the resultant worsening relationships between residents and police there. Good relationships between police and neighborhood residents has been shown to correlate with lower crime rates.

Part of the problem with Broken Windows, Kubrin says, is that people have different views of unacceptable disorder, especially in cities such as Portland and San Francisco, where a certain level of disorder is tolerated.

In the original Broken Windows article, Wilson and Kelling cited a survey conducted in Portland in which three-fourths of adults interviewed said they would cross to the other side of a street when they saw a gang of teenagers.

“You ask people what is disorder and depending on who they are and where they live, you’re going to get completely different answers,” Kubrin says. A small group of young men just standing on a street corner? “Most middle-class white people would consider it disorder, and I’m not sure everyone sees that as disorder,” she says.

Aggressive panhandling, according to Kubrin, is more widely viewed as disorder.

“People want to be left alone,” she says.

But what about extreme incivility — the motorist flashing a middle finger as he drives past, or the in-your-face litterer, or the driver who speeds through a residential neighborhood or fails to stop at a crosswalk for pedestrians? What aggravates some people to the point they think the vandals are loose barely gets noticed by others.

“There have to be a million background factors in place for disorder to lead to crime,” says David Thacher, a University of Michigan professor of public policy and urban planning who has written extensively about Broken Windows policing. Racial tensions can be one of those background factors.

“Disorder can contribute to more serious crime if there’s already some sense of fear in the air,” Thacher says.

Chicago-based police consultant Alexander Weiss is a believer in Broken Windows policing — when it is judiciously applied. Indianapolis police officers weren’t writing many traffic tickets until Weiss was hired as a consultant and, according to Weiss, convinced the city that making more traffic stops in high-crime areas and writing more tickets was worthwhile. The result was a drop in violent crime, and Weiss says one of the reasons was a general sense of increased surveillance in those neighborhoods — a Broken Windows deterrent.

“It goes back to the same basic idea,” Weiss says. “If you have people who don’t respect social norms, they drive badly, they drive recklessly. Many times they’re felony offenders as well.”

What makes Portland different?

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson says it’s no surprise Portland has a low crime rate, even with its visible signs of disorder. The city has a relatively affluent and educated populace and strong neighborhood identification — factors that correlate with less crime. It’s possible that Portland’s history of including neighborhood associations in civic discussions also has kept it safer. It doesn’t hurt, Sampson says, that Portland has a small minority population, which consistently correlates with a lower crime rate in cities nationwide.

Portland police chief Mike Reese says in some areas, Portland has been extremely responsive to civic disorder. Litter, in his view, is less tolerated here than in most cities. The business community pays nonprofit Clean and Safe to remove graffiti in the downtown area. When he arrived in Portland, Reese says, there were many abandoned cars in city neighborhoods. Aggressive parking ordinance enforcement has mostly taken care of that problem, ratcheting down residents’ perception of disorder in their neighborhoods, Reese says.

The Travelers, also known as Road Warriors, have ratcheted up perceptions of disorder in Portland in recent years. These bedraggled homeless youth often block sidewalks with their small groups that often include large dogs. This past summer, according to Reese, officers took a different approach to dealing with the Travelers. Police on foot went out of their way to ask Travelers where they had come from and why they were in town. He says as a result the youths probably were less of a public nuisance than in previous summers.

Reese says regardless of whether public disorder correlates with rising crime rates, it’s important that police respond when residents complain about aggressive street people.

“My experience has been you need to pay attention to the little things because they impact peoples’ perception and fear of crime and disorder,” Reese says.

The Chinese Garden’s DeMarco thinks that Portlanders have come to regard the disorder represented by abandoned buildings and homeless people on the streets differently than people in many other cities, recognizing they don’t necessarily connect to criminal activity. And that may be why Portland’s Broken Windows don’t necessarily translate into fear.

“I don’t think we’re threatened,” DeMarco says. “We are personally worried. When I look at young people or families out on the street, I feel terrible. I don’t feel unsafe. I just feel worried for them.”

To read the original “Broken Windows” article go to: ow.ly/FfkV7.

Next week, part two of Portland’s most glaring Broken Windows.

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