Fix the broken windows, Mr President

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

When I went to study in the US in 1986, New York City in the vicinity of Times Square through 42nd Street was a place out of a post-apocalyptic video game.

Pimps and whores prowled the decrepit graffiti-scrawled streets. Muggers skulked in the alleyways. Murder and violent crime were commonplace.

The liberal theory around why urban social decay happens is that these ills occur as a result of social injustice and poverty. (In our country, social injustice and poverty are in turn blamed on racism.) So the argument is that if you fix poverty and social injustice, these problems go away.

The then mayor of New York City believed this theory too. So much like our current ruling party does in our country, minor infractions were ignored. Beggars, vagrants, street vendors, jaywalkers; all were regarded as victims. So bylaws that make those things illegal were not enforced.

By 1993, the US was in recession. New York’s unemployment rate had almost doubled from 6.7% in 1989 to 11.1% in 1992.

And into this mess, trampling rudely over the sensitivities of the liberal proponents of social injustice as the root cause of crime, came Rudy Giuliani. He was a former Democrat turned Republican who ran for mayor with the promise to clean up New York City and improve the quality of life.

Giuliani was elected and got the New York City Police Department to adopt an aggressive strategy involving crackdowns on relatively minor offences such as graffiti, turnstile jumping, cannabis possession, and aggressive panhandling by "squeegee men", on the theory that this would send a message that order would be maintained.

“It's the street tax paid to drunks and panhandlers. It's the squeegee men shaking down the motorist waiting at a light. It's the trash storms, the swirling mass of garbage left by peddlers and panhandlers, and open-air drug bazaars on unclean streets,” he said.

It was not a new idea. The “broken windows” theory had been proposed in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in March 1982:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

“Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

Police commissioner Bill Bratton and his deputy Jack Maple created and instituted CompStat, a computer-driven comparative statistical approach to mapping crime geographically and in terms of emerging criminal patterns.

More to the point, the system kept track of officer performance by keeping track of the number of criminal apprehensions.

Last year, New York City recorded the lowest number of homicides in 50 years – 414 for a city with a population of 8,24 million. It’s one of the safest cities in the US.

I’m reminded of this sequence of events because our President will this week deliver the State of the Nation Address against the backdrop of the brutalisation of a 17-year-old girl who was gang-raped, had her throat slit, her fingers and legs shattered, and a broken glass bottle thrust into her.

The creation of a class of young males who did this unimaginably horrendous act does not happen in a vacuum. It happens when we as a society fail to fix the broken windows.

It is wrong for us as a society to financially incentivise young girls to have babies who are brought up without strong father figures to keep them in line.

It is wrong for us to send those children to schools where it is commonplace for teachers to have sex with their pupils.

It is wrong for us to allow pupils to walk 12 km to school and find their teachers to be absent or on strike.

It is wrong for us to allow underage girls to present themselves pregnant at schools without seeking out and prosecuting fathers who are by definition automatically guilty of statutory rape.

It is wrong for us to spend a quarter of a billion rand on the President’s personal residence when school books have not been delivered.

It is wrong for us to not fire incompetent teachers because we are afraid of losing the votes of the union which protects them.

It is wrong for us to not allow a youth wage subsidy for youngsters to find work because we are afraid of losing the votes of unions who protect incompetent overpaid public servants.

It is wrong for youngsters who march demanding subsidies to be stoned by union members while police look on.

It is wrong for the national government to allow violent thugs pretending to be farm workers to blockade the road between Johannesburg and Cape Town and do nothing.

It is wrong for government to pay protection money to minibus taxi associations so that public transport BRT drivers do not get shot.

It is wrong for us to not insist on minimum educational levels for police officers as the first step to hiring them.

It is wrong for us to expect police officers who cannot read, write, or count to deal with rapists in a way that ensures their conviction and imprisonment.

Our president can fix these things. Will he choose to do so?