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Public Order Makes City Life Possible

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Public Order Makes City Life Possible

In a culture that no longer teaches civility or citizenship, police have a greater burden than ever. Autumn 2017
Public safety
Cities

Two summers ago, a sobbing relative called to say that she’d just seen one youth stab another in the chest outside her front door in gentrifying Harlem. As she spoke, she noticed that the blood had splattered her shoes. The victim didn’t die, thank heaven, but staggered across the street and got help. It was a neighborhood annual reunion—barbecues blazing, salsa music blasting—and the victim and his assailant, simmering with decades’-long loathing now heightened by drug-dealing rivalry, exploded. I e-mailed my friend Bill Bratton, then still police commissioner, to say that a lack of quality-of-life policing in that neighborhood, including an official blind eye to petty dope traffic, clearly contributed to the do-what-you-want mind-set that prevailed in that precinct, whose former corruption once dubbed it the Dirty Thirty.

Bratton needed no convincing: he was an even truer believer than I in the Broken Windows theory of crime prevention—the idea that if cops let minor crimes of disorder, such as low-level marijuana selling or subway fare-beating or public urination (or, these days, masturbation), go unpunished, the malicious will conclude that anything goes and do what their evil hearts prompt. He soon had a narcotics squad patrolling the neighborhood, and within months, the police had won a score of convictions of the pushers.

Bratton is retired now; the city council has decriminalized crimes of disorder by mandating civil instead of criminal summonses for many of them, resulting in no criminal record and no arrest warrant if you don’t show up in court; and the successors to the narcotics cops who worked their magic in the Three-Oh in 2015 have lost interest in the ongoing problem. They’re just low-level kids, the detectives say; they’ll soon be back on the streets—and, more than anything, as they do not say, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his city council of unemployables have decided that justice demands that the acting-out of the disorderly and the criminal, ex officio victims of social injustice, should take precedence over the peace and safety of the hardworking and civil. Out go the backlog of quality-of-life warrants of the last decade and more. Why should the wrongdoings of yesteryear weigh on the employment chances of an utterly work-unready 28-year-old—though, of course, no one would even invoke that past transgression in a case that didn’t involve current lawbreaking, just as no cop made a major fuss about small quantities of pot possession, unless some larger offense was at issue.

Fortunately, city crime continues to drop, because the virtuous circle set going by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Commissioner Bratton, and carried on by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly, has its own momentum, proving, as Adam Smith said, that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”—it takes a long time to expend the social and cultural capital that so many cities and countries take for granted. As Gotham proved, you can legislate morality, in the sense that lawmaking and law enforcement can change behavior and beliefs. But laws, morals, and manners exist in a dialectical tension with one another, and what has changed for the better can also change for the worse—and more easily, since improvement is harder than destruction. With a Black-Lives-Matter mayor, city council, and electorate, with Antifa thugs supposedly now the good guys, and with contrary views silenced by the universities and the trendy totalitarians of Silicon Valley (who, between engineering classes, learned what is right and moral from their required Stanford PC-indoctrination course), I would suggest holding on to your hat. Thanks to the age of Kindle, though, at least we won’t have book burnings.

But the reason for controlling quality-of-life disorder is not only, or even primarily, that it lowers major crime. Order is what makes urban life possible. Civility—the art of living in a city—is not innate. We have to learn not to throw sand at other kids and to learn to raise our hands to be called on, to stand in line and take our turn, not to blast music from our apartment or car, not to display too much affection publicly, not to block the sidewalk or market aisle, not to yell on our cellphones or cram pizza into our maws on the street or public transport, not to litter, not to monopolize public spaces with our “expressive” behavior, not to cut off pedestrians in crosswalks, not to bother or offend others unnecessarily. We no longer teach civility in schools: instead of the “citizenship” that my generation learned, we impart “social justice,” which teaches grievance and resentment of others; and city officials, with an Obama edict’s backing, have hamstrung school discipline, fostering misbehavior. In college, we don’t teach free and civil discussion, tolerance of intellectual differences, or respect for learning but only a kid’s right to resent microaggressions and silence politically incorrect speech as “violence.” The result will not be urbanity.

That leaves the police to stop people from disturbing the peace or committing public nuisances. Except that the city council wants them to stop doing all that; and fear of a career-ending confrontation in such an anti-cop climate makes officers all too ready to pull back. Already, boom boxes are metastasizing on the streets—even bicyclists blast them—and the homeless, who go wherever lax order-keeping and virtue-signaling left-wing generosity make them welcome, have flocked to Gotham’s dirty-again streets.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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