RICHARDS: American Cities Need To Start Prosecuting Their Criminals Again

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Maurice Richards Former Chief of Police, Martinsburg WV
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that prosecuting petty crimes has been an effective way to reduce violent crime in American cities. You can find a counterpoint here, where Director of Communications for the Libertarian Party Laryssa Gaughen argues that prosecuting people for petty crimes won’t reduce violent crime in American cities.

“Broken Windows,” or quality-of-life policing, is the foundation of any successful community policing strategy. Along with other proactive policing innovations including CompStat data-driven policing, it was key to the historic crime reductions of the 1990s.

Quality-of-life policing is vital to reducing violence and saving black lives in high-crime inner city neighborhoods, but in major American cities it has been destroyed by the policies of Black Lives Matter Marxists, Democrat mayors and George Soros-sponsored pro-criminal states attorneys.

The Broken Windows theory of policing originated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They argued that if neighborhood disorder, decay and low-level crime are tolerated, lawlessness will increase and create an environment within which more serious crime is likely to occur. Fear of crime results in law-abiding citizens surrendering streets, parks and other public spaces to the control of criminals and gangs.

In every city, citizens complain about this neighborhood disorder and demand quality-of-life policing — much more frequently than they request enforcement against serious crime. These include community complaints about loitering, public drinking, trespassing, public urination, street prostitution, open-air drug selling and illegal drug use, vagrants, panhandling, vandalism, theft, graffiti, gang intimidation, public dice games and loud noise. Citizens expect the police to restore public order and safety.

To address these problems, Broken Windows first recognizes that the police must work in partnership with the community. Officers must be well trained, use discretion and sound judgement — targeting crime and disorder problems that residents have identified. In high crime conditions, arrest and other enforcement options are appropriate responses.  In other circumstances, persuasion, warnings or social service referrals may be sufficient to resolve problems. However, if offenders do not know that if they refuse to obey the law they will be arrested and prosecuted — they will not comply, the police are powerless and crime increases.

But this is what Radical Leftist prosecutors in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities have done by refusing to prosecute criminals for any of the above offenses. These are the same rogue states attorneys who have “de-prosecuted” rioters and enabled cop killers. Now, they have deliberately undercut the ability to do quality-of-life policing, further abandoning black communities to gang violence.

Broken Windows community policing has proven successful in reducing crime and improving quality-of-life. From 1994 to 2009, New York achieved a 75% reduction in felony crime while reducing its jail system population by 40%. In Chicago, from 1991 to 2002, homicides were reduced by 29%. In Chicago’s black neighborhoods all felony crime was reduced — homicide by 26%, robbery by 61%, rape by 43% and burglary by 51%. Fear of crime in black neighborhoods decreased 25%.

Broken Windows is not “Zero Tolerance Policing.”  But Broken Windows has been misapplied by police departments and consequently misunderstood by the public. Zero Tolerance is sending police into high-crime areas to indiscriminately ticket or arrest every person they see in violation of any kind. From 2003 to 2006, Mayor Martin O’Malley directed the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) to conduct massive zero tolerance sweeps. BPD averaged 100,000 arrests per year in a city of 600,000 with disastrous results. The trust of many black Baltimoreans in their police was demolished.

Critics cite examples where Broken Windows has been misapplied, charging that quality-of-life policing racially profiles and targets blacks and other minorities. This is false. Today’s policing is data-driven. To protect law-abiding citizens from crime, police go where the crime is. Disparities in contacts or enforcement are not due to race but criminal behavior, responses to 911 calls from those same communities, and reactions to neighborhood residents’ concerns.

Law-abiding minority citizens want the police in their communities. Eighty-one percent of black Americans want as many or more police officers in their neighborhoods. Remarkably, a poll conducted in New York City just weeks after the Eric Garner incident found 56% of blacks and 64 % of Hispanics still supported quality-of-life enforcement. The same poll showed 90% of blacks and 71% percent of Hispanics said there was no excuse for the way the police acted in the Garner incident. These numbers don’t surprise me. As a sergeant and lieutenant in the Chicago Police Department, I conducted almost 100 community meetings — most in black neighborhoods. The only complaint I heard at every meeting was, “Why can’t we get more cops on our Beat!”

By perpetuating the myth of systemic police racism, Defunding the Police, eliminating cash bail, ending qualified immunity, and now crippling quality-of-life policing — Black Lives Matter, Democrats, their media and Leftist prosecutors are close to destroying the police. Policing in America is broken but we can still save it.

Pro-criminal policies must be reversed. Broken Windows, the foundation of community policing, must be revived. It is time for Americans, led by our Chiefs of Police, to demand that even rogue states attorneys prosecute all crimes.

Maurice Richards is the former Chief of the Martinsburg Police Department in West Virginia.   He served as Chief from 2015 to 2020 after a distinguished 24-year career in the Chicago Police Department. Richards holds a doctorate in Adult Education from Northern Illinois University. 

His writing has been featured in The Federalist, The Daily Caller, Human Events, and The Hill