Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The sky-people and two-way streets

There is a group I call the storytellers-in-the-sky. They are researchers who tell stories of predicting and analyzing crime from the vantage point of far above the reality on the street - usually employing Big Data to slice and dice stats and find some mysterious crime patterns that will, presumably, help us resolve crime.

We’re still waiting for that last part. In the meantime there are others who do street research - action research - the hard work that makes a difference block by block. Evaluations of this action research is slower to arise and tedious to collect. But it is promising and shows real results.

Now and then, the sky-people and the street people meet up. Such was the case with some decent research lately uncovering what street research types like SafeGrowth and CPTED practitioners have been saying all along! If done properly, converting one-way streets to two-way streets cuts traffic speeds and crime at the same time.


A recently published online study in the Journal of Planning and Education Research shows how to reverse unsafe conditions on one-way city streets. And even though traffic flow increased on the two-way converted street, traffic accidents went down.

The study, Two-Way Street Conversions discovered road safety improved with two-way streets and simultaneously revealed impressive crime declines in both auto thefts and robberies by over 30 percent.

Two-ways vs one-ways to cut crime
Action-based research like that is exactly what we need to transform neighborhoods. We don’t need more macro, sky stories, for example research trying to figure out if crime is a social epidemic.

The epidemic hypothesis is simple, if duh-inducing: A high crime area infects nearby neighborhoods like a virus which, if untreated, spreads to other neighborhoods.

It’s the obvious implication that gets sky-like: To fix the situation we need to come up with a vaccine to protect unaffected neighborhoods. Presumably we then treat the sick neighborhood with some preventive cure. I’m not sure if that’s exactly how the sky-plot goes but if so, I’m reminded of Sheldon’s line from Big Bang: Bazinga!


Sadly, sky-storytellers see crimes as inanimate objects with no social history. They call them crime generators and crime hotspots, presumably to better measure such things and remain objective like the scientist studying the lab rat. Hotspots and crime generators are real things of course, but they definitely do have a cultural and social history not to be ignored.

More to the point, crime generators are places like fast food restaurants frequented by the indigent and drug addicted looking for cheap food. Crime hotspots are places like taverns frequented by the poor and jobless looking for alcohol-relief.

The message lost on the storytellers-in-the-sky is that the conditions creating such places are the very conditions that trigger both crime motives and opportunities in the first place. That’s the message of action-researchers and it’s as simple as a two-way street.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Reversing the by-stander effect: For Kitty

Last week the New York Times ran an article called Remembering Kitty Genovese, a haunting story about the young woman murdered late one night in 1964 in front of her home as she returned from work. According to news reports plenty of people witnessed or heard Kitty’s murder, but they did nothing.

I blogged about this a few years ago in A cry from the dark. 

In CPTED this is known as the by-stander effect and it refutes natural surveillance as a form of guardianship to prevent crime.

New York bar scene in 1963 - screenshot from Remembering Kitty
Ironically, journalists eventually discovered one witness did in fact call police and another initially hollered at the murderer, but none of that mattered to Kitty nor to public sentiment. As the Times story said: A paradigm of danger and indifference in an anonymous city had taken hold. 


Studies in environmental psychology now confirm the by-stander effect. In CPTED today we know natural surveillance is but one small part of a much bigger prevention story.

Second Generation CPTED teaches us that eyes on the street are not enough if they are eyes that don’t care or belong to people too afraid to act. Creating a genuine sense of connection between neighbors is how guardianship through surveillance works best. Without that social cohesion there is no community for people to care about. Research has also demonstrated how social cohesion cuts crime or how its absence triggers it.

Parking lot where Kitty Genovese parked the night of her murder - screenshot from Remembering Kitty

Murderer Winston Moseley died in prison two weeks ago. Kitty’s brother Bill published a letter to the Moseley family that said: …my family’s better angels do now express our condolences to the Moseley family. What do we owe to all our fellow beings? … Let us join with the hope of shared egalitarian equanimity. 

Last October The Witness premiered at the New York Film Festival, a documentary following Bill Genovese’s efforts to examine Kitty’s life and speak to Moseley in prison prior to his death.

Bill Genovese is right; Egalitarian equanimity - probably through social cohesion - should become our rallying cry in the 21st Century neighborhood. That much, at least, we owe to Kitty.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The City-by-the-Bay - Paradise lost?

Golden Gate Bridge in the City-by-the-Bay
The strength of a democracy and the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens are determined in large measure by the ability of the police to discharge their duties. - Herman Goldstein, Policing a Free Society, 1977

It was called the playpen of countercultures, a place where “sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky” and “a grownup swinging town” (Frank Sinatra said that). I recently visited San Francisco en route from our SafeGrowth summit.

I love this town! It has art, music, walkability, interesting streets, and culture at every turn. If you're bored here, check your pulse.

True, it’s housing costs are out of reach and traffic is a nightmare. But consider the rest: Eclectic and world famous architecture. Birthplace of the United Nations. Mother to Silicon Valley and the world’s biggest tech startups. Home to film noir, hippies, the largest and oldest Chinatown outside Asia, cable cars and the Golden Gate bridge.

San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities.

Eclectic architecture, vibrant streets
All except for one glaring problem: Major scandals in the SFPD - the San Francisco Police Department!

There are cases of officer theft, coverups, and racism. One incident of police racism from 2012 may have tainted 3,000 criminal cases. And right after that, another group of officers were snagged in yet another racism controversy last year.


Then there are the police shootings of homeless men!

Disturbing videos have been showing up on YouTube. One from a shooting of a homeless man appeared yesterday.

Another shooting from December has gone viral. I rarely post graphic YouTube videos as they tell little of the full story and I find them gratuitous. Yet, even to the dispassionate observer, it is becoming obvious that an ominous pattern is emerging.


Retired SFPD police chief George Gascon - and current San Francisco district attorney - is leading the call for accountability in San Fransisco. I met Gascon a few years ago at a national police leadership workshop and he seemed an astute leader. If he's calling for reform, there are serious problems!

And now the federal government is investigating? How does this happen? Are the combat cops in charge?

I have known a few San Francisco officers over the years and they were as conscientious and dedicated as anywhere. I know one particular police executive, a friend of mine, who spent years in San Francisco PD and today is among the most outstanding police leaders in the country. Trustworthy and true, she exemplifies excellence!


Perhaps these charges are overblown, media hype? One thing is certain: The ability of SFPD to discharge their duties determines, to a large measure, the quality of life citizens enjoy in that great city.

San Francisco is a fabulous place and it deserves a great police department.

A great city deserves a great police department