Saturday, November 27, 2010

Shazam! New York's crime solution?

For a decade NYPD has claimed credit for lower crime

This week America celebrates Thanksgiving. Among the multitude of things for which to be thankful is lower crime rates than in the 1970s and 1980s. An article in the New York Times says this year the NYPD offer thanks for yet another dip in the annual crime rate. Wonderful. Except for one thing. Crime didn't dip. At least not violent crime.

According to the NYPD 2010 crime stats, murder is up 16% since last year, rapes up 14% and robberies up 5%. Only when combining the violent crime numbers with much more numerous property crime numbers like burglary and larceny, does the crime rate "dip".

Is Thanksgiving the moment when the decade long crime decline finally stalls? It this the turning point for a city once celebrated as poster-child for effective policing? Is this when the Great Recession finally triggers a tidal crime shift from ebb to flow?

The good news? Perspective. Even a 16% increase this year is a light-year away from prior decades. In 1990 New York there were 2,263 murders. In 2009 there were 471. All this in spite of a population increase.

More good news - research from Vera Institute's Michael Jacobson suggests "effective policing in New York has made some difference - even though the statistical effects, if they are there at all, are small." At least some policing strategies have some impact, though it's unclear to what extent NYPD's version of those strategies deserve applause.

The bad news? Cooked books.


One (admittedly narrow) research survey released last month says retired senior officers are now raising questions on the veracity of NYPD crime stats. That's not new. I remember this kind of thing in some Canadian police organizations 20 years ago. Those familiar with police research have for years read the literature about these kinds of shenanigans - literature politicians tend to ignore.

The most notorious tactic is the Great Reclassification Scam: Crime reports in one category get reclassified into a lower category. Last month's study described how theft reports with expensive stolen items were checked against web sites such as e-Bay to find similar items with lower prices. Stolen items in the reports were repriced with lower values in order to reclassify them from felony grand larcenies (thefts over $1000) down to misdemeanors.

Shazam! Lower felony rates!

Granted, some of the retired senior officers surveyed may have had an axe to grind. Some also offered the slippery ethical reasoning that reclassification scams resulted from pressure to keep improving their crime stats each year.

Interestingly, most officers surveyed said New York was now a safer place and the Compstat strategy, the statistics and management system producing those stats, was partly responsible. As well, other research studies contradict the scam allegations and conclude NYPD stats are generally accurate.

Who to believe? Crime up or down?

Perhaps the more important question is, What did police do differently under Compstat to tackle crime?

Next blog: Compstat!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Small is beautiful

Night-time Moscow from the International Space Station, NASA photo

When viewed from space, cities look beautiful, exciting and filled with energy. It's easy to forget they even have crime. Those who focus too much on that big picture look for big city solutions with a wide-angle lens.

Close-up, the picture of the city looks very different. Turns out it's the close-up picture with the zoom lens that provides the best opportunities for creating safe places. One example was provided at the ICA CPTED conference by Jim Diers, Seattle's neighborhood guru. His presentation is on-line at the ICA website.

Dead spaces, such as deserted nooks beneath overpasses, are isolated, not maintained, and ideal for drug dealing, robberies, and nefarious crimes. The neighborhood folks in Seattle decided to turn this one into something more interesting and fun.

Underpass no-man's land

After a long public dialogue one favorite design was chosen - the underpass troll. It is today among one of the choice tourist spots to view. It is also far safer than it was.

Re-activating dead spaces with fun, collaborative design

Fine tuned design with collaborative public input can produce beautiful results. Another ingredient for success.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Project H - A starting place

Low cost playground designs that mesh math skills with physical activity

How do we start community building in a place of rapid decline? How do we create social capital where none appears?

Tough questions. One answer is to learn from others with great ideas. Here is a great idea using community design.

Emily Pilloton is a brilliant, young activist architect (Watch her video. You'll see what I mean). Her book Design Revolution set the stage for how she works.

She and her partner have now launched the next act: They moved to the poorest county in North Carolina and created Project H Design, a strategy to put their ideas into action.

Emily describes Bertie County, North Carolina as the poster child for the demise of rural America. A place where downtowns are hollowed out - a "rural ghetto" with no shared vision for a collective future.

They have already done some pretty cool things (see photo above) Now they are teaching high school kids how to start transforming their own neighborhood through community design.

There is a New York Times article about it here.

My favorite is her appearance this past January on the comedy show The Colbert Report. Wait for the buffering - it's worth it.

I have added the Project H group website to my LikeMinded list in case you want to follow them. (I do!)

I can't imagine a group more likeminded to SafeGrowth.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Bonnie and Clyde Effect

The bullet ridden car of Bonnie and Clyde, 1934

Do bad economies cause crime waves? The infamous Bonnie and Clyde saga in the 1930s happened during the biggest economic downturn in history. It was covered in the national media and it stirred fear of rampant crime. The economy was a mess and more crime comes with it. Gangsters were everywhere. At least that's how the story went.

Whether rampant crime was a reality (it wasn't) didn't seem to matter. It sold lots of papers.

Today we again see local crime stories on the national media during a time of economic challenge. They too stir fear about rampant crime. As before, those stories sell lots of papers (or today's equivalent).

Is crime getting worse with the Great Recession? When they feature horrific local crime stories that convince us we're off to hell in a handbasket, are national news editors getting it right? (Hold the sarcasm. I know that's laughable. Bear with me a moment)

Back in January I wrote about crime rates. Turns out this year's local crime picture has been blurry. Nationally, official crime rates continue their decades long decline. In some cities and regions it is the opposite.

Criminologist James Allan Fox recently told the Huffington Post that economic downturns generally result in some crime increases. Check out the national crime rate store here.

Fox says "there is a connection between an economic downturn and crime: Budget cuts create significant challenges in keeping crime rates low." True, economic downturns tend to correspond with youth crime and street level drug activity. One example is the crack cocaine epidemic during the economic decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On the other hand Criminologist David Kennedy thinks it isn't downturns, but rather boomtimes when crime peaks. "Just look at the 1920's,' he says, "It was a period of booming economic prosperity…and very high crime. The 1950s and 60s were the same. The economy was great, but crime rates rose every single year."

Check out the Huffington Post story here.

Bonnie and Clyde made for readable, and sellable, national news

The Bonnie and Clyde effect blurs what matters most. National, or for that matter citywide, crime rates detract us from getting the job done: the task of building safer communities in our own neighborhoods. Generally speaking, it is crime in our own neighborhoods that matters. It is fear of crimes elsewhere that keep us inside. National news stories on horrific local crimes tell us nothing about our neighbors and less about our local safety.

Who, I wonder, holds national news editors accountable?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Suburbs: The Fix?

Suburbs: The Fix is in

Tonight the CBC broadcast a news documentary about the increasing political power of the suburbs.

In every planning or human geography grad program there is a course on urban studies. In that course there is usually a debate about the urban/suburban divide, a divide that runs deep in popular culture. It cuts deep into the environmental wastage from long suburban drives to work in rush hour. It surfaces in a dwindling downtown tax base from out-migration.

Best-selling author Richard Florida recently wrote "the challenge is to remake the suburbs, to turn them into more vibrant, livable, people-friendly communities and, in so doing, to make them engines of innovation and productivity."

For many years growing suburban populations and a dwindling urban tax base resulted in downtown deterioration and high crime rates.

The picture is no longer so clear.

Suburbs not only represent a place of increasing political power, they have also seen increasing crime rates. In places like New York downtown crime rates have declined while Memphis recorded a suburban crime blip after the demolition of a downtown public housing project.

There is now some light at the end of the tunnel.

Toronto's Jane/Finch suburb has long been a hotspot for crime. Last year I published an empirical study on one SafeGrowth project I helped launch there - the San Romanoway apartments.

It was one of the first times the crime trend was halted in a small suburban pocket. There is now a fabulous documentary film about San Romanoway's chief community organizer Stephnie Payne called "The Fix" explaining how it works.

Perhaps this is one future for our suburbs?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Malaise - the real threat to safety

Our local Halloween parade and scary costumes

Today we celebrate Halloween, that ancient Celtic harvest festival marking summer's end. Today it's signalled by masks and scary costumes hiding the faces of kids looking for goodies.

Last week I ran a SafeGrowth training in Milwaukee with the Community Safety Initiatives folks at LISC. (Students: Assignments will be posted in the Toolkit section below on Wednesday)! During the training I had interesting chats about the difficulty implementing tactics in an environment with poor resources and even poorer political support.

Then I thought of the scariest ghoul of them all when it comes to safer places: malaise.

Malaise is a feeling that things are just not going right. It's the social disease which President Jimmy Carter once called a fundamental threat to democracy.

Malaise is similar to anomie, the social pathology described a century ago by famous sociologist Emile Durkheim. It's the alienation felt by people from by an inability to reach legitimate goals, in this case caused by resources or politics.

I see malaise occasionally in the faces of practitioners who confront significant challenges. Perhaps they've been beaten back by setbacks. They get to a point where they lose faith that their work matters, but still they put on a brave mask. They may think to themselves; there are no treats from prevention work, only political tricks.

That is malaise at its worst!

No doubt this is a real feeling. But is it a real thing? Can someone not suffering malaise accomplish what others cannot? Is it like the spooks on Halloween - more contrived than real? There is no doubt obstacles exist. In fact, there is probably truth to the idea that some regions are more (or less) likely to solve problems creatively, what Richard Florida calls The Creative Class.

Yet, like Halloween, we can choose belief in one thing or we can choose belief in another. There is just as much to be gained from persisting and seeking more creative options. That is the exact opposite of malaise. It is called vigor.

Vigor is the magic I see in successful practitioners. Vigorous practitioners exist in all regions. I've posted many examples over the past year. Here are a few:

1. Seattle's neighborhood governance described by Jim Diers.
2. The Westville neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut.
3. The Oregon District neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio.
4. The Hollygrove neighborhood story in New Orleans.
5. The San Romanoway apartments in Jane/Finch, Toronto.

Interestingly, Milwaukee has a great example as well. The SOHI District, a main street program in Milwaukee sponsored by the city and the Local Initiative Support Corporation of Milwaukee. Some of the SOHI folks attended the SafeGrowth training a few years ago. Their work has been remarkable. There are websites of SOHI as well as a SOHI YouTube channel of their successes.

There is even a crime review article published in the April, 2009 CPTED Perspective newsletter

Perhaps the very best person to exemplify vigor was a young woman in a Cincinnati SafeGrowth training 6 years ago. Her name was Sarah and I titled that blog An Ode to the Sarah's. For the sake of tackling malaise, and the sake of our neighborhoods, it's worth a look.