Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Uncovering the Great Murder Mystery

In 2010 Vanessa Barker published an intriguing study just released on the internet: Explaining the Great American Crime Decline.

I love this study.

Barker reviews three studies on the crime decline: Frank Zimring’s The Great American Crime Decline, a report by Goldberger and Rosenfield and a book by Wallman and Blumstein, The Crime Drop in America.

You might think the crime decline topic is old turf with explanatory paths we’ve walked many times: less street cocaine, bigger and fuller prisons, tougher policing, smarter policing, legal abortions.

Alas, says Barker, none of those standard stories emerge from the research intact.


Barker moves away from standard stories onto Insights from Urban Sociology. Crime theorists will recognize references to collective efficacy and neighborhood structure. For those unfamiliar with crime theory, SafeGrowth is a megamenu of these same insights. Probably why I love the study...duh!

The changing structure of downtowns and changing youth culture falls squarely into these insights. Such changes help build more cohesive neighborhoods, not in places like Ferguson but in enough places to make a difference.

These insights include social and environmental factors this blog has held front and center, like business associations, non-profits, schools, social services, cultural activities, transport systems, and housing. They include examples of collaborative commons and social cohesion.


That’s when Barker drops the bomb! When she re-examined urban ecology studies on immigration she discovered how increasing immigration has helped reduce crime, not increase it!

“Sampson…suggests that increased immigration in the 1990s sparked urban renewal and economic growth in immigrant-dense neighborhoods like Queens and Bushwick in New York, the West Side in Chicago, South Central Los Angeles, and cities like Miami. The influx of immigrants corresponded with increases in income and decreases in poverty.”


I’d love to see that debate in elections now underway in Canada, and next year in the U.S. Sadly what we get instead is hollow sound-bite nuggets from a bunch of nattering numpties.

Case in point: Last week the NDP party in Canada proposed to hire 2,500 more cops. They want to cut crime on Canadian streets…streets where most crime is still declining!

Pockets of Crime expands urban ecology theory -
collective action by residents can turn the tide,
but only when physical conditions are right


Sadly the standard stories persist, lately in the theory that crime declines resulted from increased security worldwide (in technical terms, guardianship). And we are served up a buffet of advanced statistical techniques that hit and peck at data in shiny, new datasets.

It’s a kind of infinite monkey theorem for big crime data. Remember the theory that predicted the monkey who hits and pecks keyboard keys for infinity will almost surely end up creating Hamlet.

I say leave the monkey alone! Barker and colleagues are onto something, something we’ve known for a long time.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Our enemies in blue

Our Enemies in Blue by Kristian Williams
This week I heard from two old friends, an ex-police chief and a current chief. Echoing sentiments in our recent book You In Blue, one offered, “there needs to be a new narrative”. The other, surprisingly, referred me to the controversial anti-police book by Kristian Williams,  Our Enemies in Blue: Police Power in America.

Our Enemies attempts to string together a series of violent police incidents like Ferguson and Baltimore into a wider historical chain stretching back decades. According to Williams, links showing up today - zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing and quality-of-life policing - are but the latest manifestation of an age-old chain.


Agree or not, Williams is not the first to suggest alternatives to the criminal justice system. Restorative justice, CPTED, the Interrupters, and SafeGrowth are all modern examples. Williams’ examples are a tad more unconventional and less stable. (The now defunct Black Panthers is one.)

Still, Williams’ central theme has been widely researched in the police literature: “The police do provide an important community service - offering protection against crime. They do not do this job well, or fairly, and it is not their chief function, but they do it and it brings them legitimately.”

Williams curiously ignores decades of collaborative problem-solving in the POP world - no doubt because POP refutes his point. But the fact that most police basic training academies ignore POP, reinforces it.


Williams asserts: “it is a bad habit of mind, a form of power-worship, to assume that things must be as they are, that they will continue to be as they have been... The first step toward change is the understanding that things can be different. This is my principal recommendation: we must recognize the possibility of a world without police.”

I’m not sure what that world would look like. But the fact that this sentiment has sizable voice and more listeners than ever before tells us the ripples started in Ferguson are splashing on shores far and wide.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

CPTED - The death and life of social

GUEST BLOG – Mateja Mihinjac is a criminologist at Griffith University, Australia completing her Ph.D. on the implementation of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). She is a certified SafeGrowth instructor and has taught SafeGrowth in Australia and New Zealand. This is her first SafeGrowth blog.

Diane Zahm, urban planning professor, and former ICA Chair, once wrote that without citizen involvement and practices relevant to the local neighborhood, implementation of CPTED strategies is “merely security and not really CPTED”.

I uncovered that quote recently while researching CPTED theory and history. I was amazed at how much information supported the social and motivational aspects of CPTED and yet, I discovered, it was largely ignored in contemporary CPTED literature. From my research, it was clear that CPTED, as originally intended by the pioneers, was more similar to SafeGrowth than to the CPTED practiced today, what we now call 1st Generation CPTED.


In Death and Life of Great American Cities, journalist Jane Jacobs wrote of city life and “eyes on the street” as the best example of urban design that supports informal control and builds social capital. Similarly, public housing authority Elizabeth Wood emphasized that people’s needs and desires should be paramount in urban design but that “design cannot do everything for the population”.

Architect Oscar Newman’s 1972 concept of defensible space was based on the social connections between people to create the kind of informal territorial proprietorship that prevents crime. Obviously, from the perspective of all these original writers in the field that later became CPTED, the power of social cohesion to prevent crime is not a consequence of architectural design but rather its prerequisite.


Following Newman, in the 1970s the U.S. government funded extensive research into CPTED - the Westinghouse CPTED studies. They evaluated the most comprehensive demonstration of CPTED projects in four different cities. One factor arising in those studies was the importance of motivational reinforcement - getting residents to become informed on prevention methods, working together to prevent crime, and to building a sense of social cohesion in their neighborhood. Motivation reinforcement somehow got lost in the CPTED implementation process in later years. 

A 1993 evaluation of the Westinghouse studies concluded:

“The reason for inconsistent and temporary effects appears to be that crime and violence arise from interactions between the social environment and the physical environment, which cannot be controlled entirely through manipulations of the physical environment.”

Volunteer-run outdoor library. Social reinforcement activities in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Photo by Marusa Babnik

Given the power relegated to social reinforcement in the early CPTED project work, how did social characteristics get lost in modern CPTED theory?

Social motives for crime receive practically no attention in modern CPTED except in the 1997 invention of Second Generation CPTED in which social and community aspects are reintegrated back into CPTED practice and theory.

With the renaissance of community development in the new field called collective efficacy, the exciting social design concept called tactical urbanism, and the evolution of SafeGrowth as a new way to plan safer neighborhoods, I hope CPTED will join these new 21st-century movements and fully integrate the social and the physical. Because it is within the community where the power to drive social change emerges.