As we all know, George Kelling and the late, great James Q. Wilson gave policing one of the most powerful metaphors of the last 70 years. We underestimate the power of metaphor at our peril. How we understand a problem guides how and how well we address it. Linguists believe it’s the primitive, pre-literate poet in us humans but for whatever reasons we typically capture our fundamental ideas about who and why we are — our myths, if you will — in metaphors. It’s a commonplace that we get our Western ideas about criminal justice from Genesis. (Or so I’m told. I grew up Catholic in the Archdiocese of Boston in the 60’s and we only read the Baltimore Catechism). How many oral or written arguments will lawyers make today using “fruit” and “trees”?
Some muscular metaphors have guided police and policing in the past many decades: Thin Blue Line, War on Drugs and War on Crime are three of the most influential. The most powerful one of all, of course, may be “asshole.”
“Broken Windows” is one of our big metaphors. The ideas behind it have been subject to deification and reification, revulsion and rejection. Ol’ B-Dubya has been oversold as a theory by some and dismissed as journalism by others (it made its debut in the Atlantic Monthly in 1982). Yet it marches on (metaphor alert).
I do not know of any initiative that is producing more good with this metaphor than the Community Safety Initiative (CSI) of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation out of NYC. Their program operates on the principle that investment shuns troubled areas and that abandonment and disinvestment are criminogenic. Their program replaces the vicious cycle of hopelessness with the virtuous cycle of hope.
“LISC’s Community Safety Initiative builds long-term partnerships with key parties in troubled communities to reduce persistent crime, disorder and fear. In neighborhoods as diverse as Brooklyn’s East New York, Seattle’s Chinatown-International district, and Kansas City’s east side, CSI has been the catalyst for physical improvements and strategies that have reduced crime, increased public confidence, and attracted new businesses.”
The strategy works in wonderfully complementary ways with strategies like Ceasefire and offender reentry efforts.
I have worked with CSI in Boston and Providence and sit on their advisory board. CSI brings together two of the most effective institutions working today in America’s neighborhoods: the police and community development corporations (CDC’s). CDC’s are the glaziers in Fixing Broken Windows*. Every police professional knows off the top of her head five locations in her community or district that generate crime. They might be abandoned buildings or vacant lots in just the wrong place; they might be bucket-of-blood barrooms or shuttered stores. I cannot count how many times a police officer has said to me, “if only we could do something” with this building or that lot. CSI does “if only.”
Their web address is http://www.lisc.org/section/ourwork/national/safety//
The national director is Julia Ryan, JRyan@liscnet.org
Most communities have one or more community developers in their midst. Put the glaziers to work! Reach out to CSI who’ll help start a productive conversation with the CDC. Start fixing those pockets of misery that are killing the neighborhood. Unlike many frustrating conversations, the chat with the CDC, guided by CSI, will always lead somewhere good.
*Kelling’s follow-up book with Catherine M. Coles (1998).