A small suburban group is leading the way against crime

2014-01-15 00:00

ASMALL neighbourhood watch group in Hillcrest has been doing a strange thing in response to a spate of violent crimes here a year ago.

Rather than set up vigilante-style car patrols and road blocks to corner suspected crooks, the Hillcrest Park neighbourhood watch has been painting over graffiti, clearing illegal dump sites, and either finding shelters for vagrants, or encouraging them to move on.

And the rate of serious crimes is dropping fast.

Its chairperson, Shaun Lyle, hinted at the secret in a recent message to members, “A firm, structured and professional ‘zero tolerance’ approach has seen a significant decrease in opportunistic crime. Hillcrest Park is real proof that the ‘broken-windows’ theory lives.”

This neighbourhood of 400 homes is attempting the same crime-fighting strategy that turned New York City from a violent hell zone in 1988 to one of the United States’s safest large cities within a decade.

In 1982, two U.S. academics found that people — including criminals — take cues from their environment on whether to take risks, in what they called the “broken-windows” phenomenon.

If an empty building has one broken window, the theory goes, it doesn’t seem risky or even criminal to throw a brick through any other window — and then theft and burglary and violence can follow quickly. But you need to be a hard-core vandal to break that first window.

Controversially, they suggested it is the presence of “disorder”, rather than unemployment, which is the primary trigger for crime. And, sure enough, crime continued to fall in the U.S. even after its unemployment level soared to nine percent after the financial collapse of 2008.

Recently, researchers in Holland placed clearly visible cash in a clean mailbox, and noted that 13% of passers-by would nick it. But 27% of people stole the money when that same mailbox was covered with graffiti.

In the early nineties, New York’s former police chief, William Bratton, proved that a crack down on petty crime led directly to a dramatic drop in opportunistic serious crimes, including burglaries and even robberies. Meanwhile, the disappearance of red-light districts in places like New York and Boston — apparently partly driven by the availability of online pornography, of all things —

led to a sharp reduction in violent crime.

Two other cities that have reversed violent crime with the strategy are Albuquerque in New Mexico and Cape Town.

In the mother city, the head of the safety and security portfolio, Alderman J.P. Smith, has spent six years waging war against everything from graffiti and dog droppings to street prostitution and illegal taxis. He has fined owners of dogs that barked more than six minutes per hour, and even ordered the arrest of a fellow DA councillor for unpaid traffic fines.

While particularly drug-related crimes remain rampant in Mitchell’s Plain, violent crime in the city itself has been slashed, and the once Hillbrow-like area of Sea Point is now a swanky neighbourhood with sky-high apartment prices.

Anton Visser, strategy manager for safety and security in the City of Cape Town, told The Witness that the city is now doubling down on the idea — and that members of all three police branches serving the city will be retrained in refined broken-windows methods next month. The training manual starts by explaining “why unemployment is not the main cause of crime”.

He said, “We have managed to draft and ensure the adoption of three bylaws critical to the broken-windows philosophy [which] gave us the necessary teeth to implement it effectively. The bylaws are, the Streets, Public Places and Prevention of Nuisances law — [which is] the most important one; the Graffiti Bylaw and the Problem Buildings Bylaw.”

Broken windows does little to stop organised crime; something a professional robbery gang proved with a series of crimes in Hillcrest Park in the past month.

And although — like New York —Cape Town has relocated its downtown vagrants and street prostitutes to various shelters and half-way houses, any harassment or involuntary relocation of people on the street always risks civil-rights violations and constitutional breeches.

Lyle said that — in addition to working with NGOs to assist people living on the street — his members verbally “challenge” outsiders and vagrants in their neighbourhood, and then do it again and again until the person moves on and “the word gets out”.

But he is also right in saying that living under siege of fear and violence is a civil-rights issue too.

And, clearly, the broken-windows clean-up approach is effective in reducing suburban crime, while many social scientists argue that humane intervention can work to the longer-term benefit of vagrants and street children too.

Besides the moderately effective clean-up approach of the Safer Cities projects — and festive-season crack downs on petty crime — Durban and Pietermaritzburg pursue the more traditional crime-fighting model, targeting socioeconomic “causes” of crime, high-visibility policing and detective response. It’s not enough. KwaZulu-Natal was revealed to be South Africa’s most violent province in the most recent SAPS crime statistics, and most of its city streets are virtual no-go zones late at night. In a message that the eThekwini and Msunduzi municipalities should heed, veteran private investigator Brad Nathanson recently told the Save Our Berea campaign: “Take care of the petty crime and I promise you, you’ll see serious crime drop”.

A new approach is needed, and a group of ordinary suburban residents has shown us the way.

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