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New Year's Resolution - A Full Court Press on Blight
January 3, 2003

One of my New Year's resolutions is to maintain a full court press on my effort to bring the City into full and comprehensive enforcement mode for ordinances intended to reduce blight and improve the health, safety, welfare and quality of life in Richmond. See TOM BUTT E-FORUM October 18, 2002: http://www.tombutt.com/forum/021018b.htm.

This is not just an aesthetic concern. The appearance of a city can have a dramatic impact on crime, both directly and indirectly. With a homicide rate that now exceeds (on a per capita basis) that of much publicized Oakland, Richmond needs to pull out all the stops.

The relationship between crime and the appearance of a city has come to be known as "The Broken Window Theory," a term coined by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argue that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city like Richmond, seemingly relatively minor problems are the equivalent of broken windows -- invitations to more serious crime. In Richmond, unkempt rental housing milked dry by out-of-town landlords, streets and yards full of trash, boarded up buildings, graffiti, vacant lots with unmowed weeds, trash and garbage and houses where drugs are regularly sold  -- as well as decaying municipal infrastructure -- are all signals to the community that no one cares. For more details on "The Broken Window Theory," see:

 ·          http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/enforce/SafeStreets/call_for_action.htm

·          http://www.atlantapd.org/cpdocs/bwindows.html

·          http://www.usmayors.org/uscm/us_mayor_newspaper/documents/11_04_99/national_article.htm

 The following was extracted from http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/enforce/SafeStreets/call_for_action.htm:

"Political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling co-authored the cover story in the March, 1982, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The article, titled “Broken Windows,” explained how neighborhoods might decay -- both physically and culturally -- if no one attends to their maintenance. The authors argued that the best way to fight crime was to fight the disorder that precedes it. Plagued by graffiti, panhandling, farebeating, and other problems, the New York City Transit Authority used the ideas contained in “Broken Windows” as a guide to restoring order to the subway. The New York City Police Department soon followed with a community-policing strategy focusing on order maintenance. Despite initial skepticism, the strategy caught on in both organizations and resulted in significant reductions in disorder and crime."


"Kelling and his wife, Catherine Coles -- a lawyer and anthropologist specializing in urban issues and criminal prosecution-published Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (Free Press, 1996); the book expands substantially on the 1982 article. In Fixing Broken Windows, Kelling and Coles examine the competing claims of individual liberty and community in determining to what extent public spaces should be protected. They emphasize that the “crime problem” is a combination of disorder, fear, serious crime, and urban decay; and, they contend that the current model of the criminal-justice system has failed by not recognizing the links between these elements and by ignoring the role citizens can play in crime prevention."


"There are many elements in the approach to crime reduction advocated by Kelling, Wilson, and Coles. Some of the elements, such as foot patrols and citizen involvement, form the core of what now is known as Community Oriented Policing. The theory on which this approach is based is that disorder and crime are inextricably linked, as described by Wilson and Kelling (1982) in their original article"


In "The Tipping Point," author Malcolm Gladwell picks up on the theory of crime as an epidemic that has identifiable starting points:

"On the popular side, there are endless numbers of books by conservatives talking about crime as a consequence of moral failure -- of communities and schools and parents who no longer raise children with a respect for right and wrong. all of those theories are essentially ways of saying that the criminal is a personality type - a personality type distinguished by a insensitivity to the norms of normal society. People with stunted psychological development don't understand how to conduct healthy relationships. People with genetic predispositions to violence fly of the handle when normal people keep their col. people who aren't taught right from wrong are oblivious to what is and what is not appropriate behavior. People who grow up poor, fatherless and buffeted by racism don't have the same commitment to social, norms as those from healthy middle class homes."


"But what do Broken Windows and the Power of Context suggest? Exactly the opposite. they say that the criminal -- far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world - is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him. That is an incredibly radical -- and in some sense unbelievable -- idea. There is an even more radical dimension here. The power of Context is an environmental argument. it says that behavior is a function of social context."

When Gladwell speaks of "social context," he says that it is often the little things that matter most. "The Power of Context says you don't have to solve the big problems to solve crime. You can prevent crimes by just scrubbing off graffiti and arresting fare-beaters; crime epidemics have Tipping Points every bit as simple and straightforward as syphilis in Baltimore or a fashion trend like Hush Puppies."

Community Oriented Policing is supposed to focus on the prevention of crime as well as the apprehension and prosecution of criminals after the fact. Also, one of the components of Community Oriented Policing is a concern for the entire neighborhood context, not just crime. Community Oriented Police officers are supposed to work as a team with other code enforcement officers and with the City Public Services Department and other departments to insure that the neighborhoods are healthy physically as well as criminally.

Similarly, an effective anti-blight program should focus on the prevention of blight rather than complaint-based selective and inconsistent enforcement. Currently, several Richmond ordinances that were originally passed by the City Council to outlaw blight and public nuisances as well as raise the level of community health, safety and welfare are not being enforced at all. At one time, City officials blamed this on a lack of funds. This worked for a while until it was pointed out to them that the ordinances were intended to be self-funded through fees and penalties.

Other such ordinances are typically selectively and inconsistently enforced. That is, enforcement typically occurs, if at all, only when someone makes a complaint. The perceived standing of the complainant often plays a role in the alacrity with which the City pursues the matter. For most complaints, however, the level of response by the City, if any, appears to be totally irrational - perhaps subject to a number of variables including the staff person assigned to process the complaint, the number of competing assignments at a given time, the level of resistance by the offender, the level of persistence of the complainant, the personal perception by City staff members as to the seriousness of the offense, etc.

Why city officials are reluctant to address blight is one of the enduring mysteries of city government. I have been actively exploring this for most of the 30 years I have lived in Richmond. several theories have emerged, but frankly, I still do not really know.

 ·          A large number of city employees do not live in Richmond, including some department heads and senior managers.  Most firefighters and police officers do not live in Richmond. Perhaps they are not as sensitive to the appearance of our city than  if they lived here.

·          Enforcement of blight and nuisance ordinances often involve verbal clashes with offenders and sometimes physical threats. Code enforcement staff are not, like police officers, trained or predisposed to deal with such conflict.

·          Blight abatement has not been made persistently a high priority by the City Council or the city manager.

Reducing blight can reduce crime. The city manager has committed, by the end of the first quarter of 2003, to completely overhaul the blight abatement function of Richmond government. We hope he succeeds.