In 1982, James Q. Wilson and Arthur Kelling published an influential essay in The Atlantic titled “Broken Windows.”
The authors contended that “small things matter in a community and, if nothing is done about them, they can lead to worse things. Just as a broken window left untended in a building is a sign that nobody cares, typically leading to more damage — disorderly conditions and behaviors left untended in a community are signs that nobody cares and lead to fear of crime, more serious crime and urban decay.”
The essay had both intended and unintended consequences.
Public safety organizations throughout the country began to focus on all kinds of disorderly behavior. Police in New York cracked down on the “squeegee men,” who used to block intersections, clean windshields of stopped cars and demand compensation.
In other cities, property owners cleaned up vacant properties, officials beefed up code enforcement and residents transformed weed-grown vacant lots into community gardens.
Although the essay’s arguments might have been wrongly cited to justify racially targeted “stop-and-frisk” policies in the past, the ideas about caring, involved communities were nevertheless correct.
Cities or neighborhoods whose residents feel unsafe, uneasy or besieged are in trouble.
It’s easy to identify a troubled place like St. Louis, a city that, according to St. Louis (now moving to Los Angeles) Rams owner Stan Kroenke “lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise.”
That’s a polite way of saying, Gateway Arch or no Gateway Arch, he’s getting the hell out of town and moving to L.A.
Or consider Detroit, home to the nation’s automotive giants, now in disarray with people leaving the city in shambles as it grapples with bankruptcy.
Once an economic powerhouse, St. Louis and Detroit have been battered during the past half-century by economic, social and cultural change.
They are now tough, disorderly cities with many residents who might like to leave but can’t.
Those who can afford to leave St. Louis and Detroit already have, leaving behind people with few resources to put any significant change in place.
St. Louis and Detroit are among those involuntary places, like slaughterhouses, DIA on Christmas Eve or I-25 in a blizzard. You’re only there because you have to be.
The Pikes Peak region has always been marketed as a voluntary place, temperate, healthy, beautiful and — above all — safe. Forget the chaos and crime of the decaying cities of the East and Midwest. Come live at the foot of Pikes Peak and breathe free. More than 144 years after General Palmer founded Colorado Springs, that’s still our mantra.
But are we doing what we must do to support it?
There’s not much we can do about mass shootings. Such crimes seem to arise from causes unrelated to particular locales, springing instead from the confluence of diseased minds and available weapons.
But “broken window” crimes are different. Absent effective deterrence, they can multiply, metastasize and ultimately devalue the entire region.
In 2015 several dogs were shot for no apparent reason throughout the city, including a sweet-tempered, pit-bull mix owned by a CSBJ reporter. The perps were never identified. A few days ago, an equally friendly and harmless family dog belonging to another CSBJ employee was shot dead in her fenced Palmer Lake backyard. The police are investigating — but don’t hold your breath.
Late last week, about 24 cars parked along West Bijou Street and West Pikes Peak Avenue were damaged by vandals who broke windows with rocks and bricks. Three of my neighbors on Bijou got hit, although my junky old Xterra was somehow spared. The police are investigating. Again, don’t hold your breath.
Such minor crimes corrode communities. If local police forces don’t have enough officers to effectively investigate and deter “broken window” crimes, our region can quickly become involuntary.
It’s already happening through much of southeast Colorado Springs, where both serious and minor crimes have become an unremarkable part of daily life. We haven’t paid much attention to the impact of minor crimes on our sense of community, our neighborhoods or our future — but we should.
We could start by looking at the men and women who do their best to keep us safe.
Are there enough of them? I wonder.
But if we can ante up another $50 million annually to fix potholes, maybe we could increase the public safety sales tax rate and fix our society.
And do it before we become the St. Louis of the Rocky Mountains.