My neighborhood is full of broken windows. That's a term of art in policing to describe the disorder that breeds more disorder. It includes homelessness and graffiti, quality-of-life crimes like simple assault and public drunkenness, and drug crimes that often lead to more serious crimes and make law-abiding citizens afraid to ride buses and trains and afraid to go out, making the streets that much less safe.
In a famous study, criminologists found that you could leave a parked car in a neighborhood untouched for weeks at a time — but the minute one window was broken, the entire car would be vandalized in no time. The lesson, the late professor James Q. Wilson famously argued, was simple: Disorder breeds disorder. Petty crime breeds serious crime.
At the last city council meeting, one of the council members asked why it was necessary to create a new transit safety program. Wasn't it enough that the police cleared out the homeless people who were living on the trains and buses when they reached the end of the line every night?
It was not enough. The staff responded with numbers that had not been included in the annual budget report: "There were 276 incidents of which 106 involved people who are experiencing homelessness: Assaults at bus stops, assaults on passengers, 16 threats to staff ... We hear people don't want to spend time at bus stops because of security issues there."
They hear right. And fear of crime means there are fewer people at those bus stops, which in turn makes them more dangerous.
This is Santa Monica, California, long considered one of the most desirable cities in the nation to live in — and a tourist destination for anyone visiting Los Angeles.
On Memorial Day weekend, the Santa Monica Police Department issued a press release about multiple stabbings at Santa Monica Pier, a mecca for tourists and teens, on Saturday night around 7:30 p.m. two women were assaulted by a man grabbing their breasts, and two men were stabbed when they tried to defend the women.
And this: The local police just released the numbers for the first quarter of this year: homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, grand theft auto and arson showed an increase of about 14% compared to the same time in 2022; simple assault, DUIs, fraud, vandalism and narcotics also showed an increase of about 19%.
We are, sadly, not outliers. The houses here cost many times more than in most of America. But crime here, like everywhere, is headed in the wrong direction. It is inextricably bound up with homelessness — and with reform gone wrong, according to my friend Bill Bratton, the former police commissioner of the nation's two largest cities.
I do a podcast called "No Holding Back," and Bill Bratton was my guest. He didn't hold back. He blamed the reformers, the politicians, many of them well-intentioned, who turned their backs on the lessons we should have learned from community policing, took police off the streets and out of the neighborhoods, expected them to deal with a whole range of social problems without the tools to do so and without the support they needed.
Of course, there are bad cops, and they need to be punished, but defunding the police is not the way to cut crime, and leaving quality-of-life crimes unaddressed — leaving the subways and buses to the homeless and the hooligans — is a recipe for more fear and more crime. We need to remember what worked when we were cutting crime.
When my garage was broken into by the same man for the third time, the police patiently explained to me that they were arresting him for public drunkenness because it was the only way he would be punished at all; any other charge, given the current bail laws, and he would be out before the ink was dry and would never face any jail time.
At least with public drunkenness, he would be in until he was sober, and maybe that would teach him a lesson. The police are doing their best. But the system is very broken.
Susan Estrich is a politician, professor, lawyer and writer. Whether on the pages of newspapers such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post or as a television commentator on countless news programs on CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS and NBC, she has tackled legal matters, women's concerns, national politics and social issues. Read Susan Estrich's Reports — More Here.