On its 150th anniversary, the best magazine in America (it has been so acknowledged), asked eminent thinkers to weight in on the "future of the American Idea." Among the Tom Wolfes, John Updikes, and Cornel Wests, the November 2007 edition of The Atlantic magazine features James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a piece entitled, "Decency."
What a concept: decency. Throw that up in debate on the Common Council floor and you will be jeered. Backwards reels the mind to Bill Dyke's run vs. Paul Soglin in 1973 wherein Mayor Dyke, seeking re-election, appealed to "decent people." We're still picking ourselves out of the bitter harvest.
The brief Wilson-Kelling essay is the Cliff's Notes for the community policing that Police Chief Noble Wray is undertaking. But he cannot succeed unless the greater Madison community understands it as well as he does. By that I mean every alderman, Mayor Dave (who still has training wheels), and people like Scott Milfred, Terese Berceau, Kathleen Falk, Marc Eisen, Ellen Foley, Jennifer Alexander, Marc Pocan, the Urban League, Madison Urban Ministry, the local Dems, Paul Soglin, etc.
What follows is much of the 150-word essay in the November edition:
Take public disorder seriously as we take criminal conduct
Americans value both order and freedom and drawing a line between the two is no easy task. This may seem especially true where the more routine aspects of public order are concerned: How much freedom must be sacrificed in order to have quiet streets free of graffiti, aggressive panhandlers, prostitutes, and teenage gangs? Taken alone, few of these kinds of disorder constitute major crimes - but taken together, they deeply worry people who want to go about their public business secure in the sense that our society, and not some disorderly faction within it, controls public spaces.
In 1982, we argued … that the police should take public disorder seriously as they take criminal conduct. We urged them to resume doing what was once one of their major tasks: constraining the public activity of drunks, panhandlers, prostitutes, and gangs. To this should be added a new assault on graffiti. We suggested two rationales for this change: First, people feel threatened by public disorder; second, the chance that the greater order would reduce crime rates...
Community order, we argued, would bring decent people back on the streets and discourage criminals from using public places; certain kinds of crimes (assault, robbery, and auth theft), therefore, would subsequently decline.
Virtually all of the evidence we have from studies of the police suggests that restoring order is associated with a drop in crime.
This essay points to the absolute Ur document that informed Bill Bratton and other policers, the original Wilson-Kelling article published in March 1982 in The Atlantic. It is called "Broken Windows," and I excerpt here:
Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.
If you are a subscriber to the magazine you can get to it at www.theatlantic.com via the archive. If you are not, I have too much respect for copyright laws. But it is, obviously, an important article, one that has stood the test of time, a treatise that has triumphed here in the People's Republic of Madison despite the best efforts of the chattering classes to blame deviant behavior on people who play by the rules.
Here are some more quotes from this 1982 article:
'Decriminalizing disreputable behavior … is a mistake'
Over the past two decades [BlaskaBlog note: the liberal 1960s and 1970s], the shift of police from order-maintenance to law enforcement has brought them increasingly under the influence of legal restrictions, provoked by media complaints and enforced by court decisions and departmental orders. As a consequence, the order maintenance functions of the police are now governed by rules developed to control police relations with suspected criminals. This is, we think, an entirely new development. For centuries, the role of the police as watchmen was judged primarily not in terms of its compliance with appropriate procedures but rather in terms of its attaining a desired objective. The objective was order.
A strong and commendable desire to see that people are treated fairly makes us worry about allowing the police to rout persons who are undesirable by some vague or parochial standard. A growing and not-so-commendable utilitarianism leads us to doubt that any behavior that does not "hurt" another person should be made illegal. And thus many of us who watch over the police are reluctant to allow them to perform, in the only way they can, a function that every neighborhood desperately wants them to perform.
This wish to "decriminalize" disreputable behavior that "harms no one" -- and thus remove the ultimate sanction the police can employ to maintain neighborhood order -- is, we think, a mistake.
Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust ... But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.
Catch my act on Wisconsin Week in Review, hosted by Joy Cardin, this Friday, December 7, 2007, a day that shall live ... in infamy! From 8 to 9 a.m. on WHA radio, 970 on your friendly AM dial. I will be paired against a liberal victim who won't know what hit him.