Crime Up Again - Broken windows and a broken economy may combine to increase offense rates

Editorial from The Columbian


Upon learning of the latest information regarding crime rates, it's tempting to seek simple solutions to increasingly complex issues. But in the continuing fight to protect ourselves, our families and our property, some thought must be given to the role that the economy plays in the crime rate.

Data released this week reveal that Vancouver's crime rate for the first six months of this year was 22 percent higher than for the same period the previous year.

Vancouver police officials say a computer glitch may have made this year's increase appear larger than it is. Still, throughout the West, the crime rate rose 5.9 percent; nationally, the increase was 1.3 percent.

In Vancouver, most of the increase could be attributed to jumps in the rate of burglary and motor-vehicle theft. Property crimes are certainly preferable to violent crimes. Nonviolent crimes, however, still take a devastating toll on a community. They erode the sense of security, use police resources and extract a financial toll.

There is no shortage of thoughtful explanations for why the crime rate has increased or how best to to fight it. Among the most popular over the past decade has been the "broken windows" approach, which emanates from a hypothesis put forward by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982: "If the first broken window in a building is not repaired, then people who like breaking windows will assume that no one cares about the building, and more windows will be broken. Soon the building will have no windows."

The theory was used to great effectiveness by New York City's former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. During his early years in office, Giuliani increased the size of the police force, emphasized relatively minor crimes such as public intoxication and vagrancy, and watched the rate of serious crimes drop along with smaller transgressions. His zero-tolerance approach to minor crimes was hailed as a driving force in the reduction of all crime.

But often lost in the discussion was the role of the economy. The mid-1990s were a time of sustained economic growth, huge stock-market gains and a high-tech boom. A study published last April suggests that may be the biggest factor of all in reducing crime.

"Public officials can put more cops on the beat, pass tougher sentencing laws, and take other steps to reduce crime, but there are limits to how much these can do," said Bruce Weinberg, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of economics at The Ohio State University. "We found that a bad labor market has a profound impact on the crime rates."

This certainly would match the reality of the last 18 months, during which a recession has driven unemployment rates upwards.

Weinberg's study echoes others over the years that have linked economic conditions to crime rates. The correlation is not meant to excuse those who commit crimes; most people who face difficult economic times do so without turning to crime. Nor is it meant to ignore other factors, such as poor parenting, reduced police budgets or the failure of the judicial system to deal with repeat offenders.

But as a citizenry searches for answers to the many questions that surround an increase in crime rates, it also must consider the economy as an underlying factor.


Split Decision
Fly-ball ruling goes right down the middle
At first blush, fighting over a baseball hit into the stands seems unworthy of even a mention in this space.

But when the baseball being fought over could be worth up to $2 million, and when a philosophical battle arises over whether mob rule ... well, rules, all bets are off. Let the lawyers begin!

It began in October 2001, on the last day of the baseball season in San Francisco's Pac Bell Park. Giants slugger Barry Bonds had just swung his lumber and connected on his record 73rd home run. Most fans in the vicinity of the fast-approaching ball understandably saw visions of sugar plums -- and big dollar signs -- in their eyes.

Television footage clearly shows that fan Alex Popov gloved the ball, if only for an instant. Then there was a thud of humanity hitting the floor. Surprise, surprise: Another fan, Patrick Hayashi, emerged with the ball. Popov came up empty handed.

Now, possession may indeed be nine-tenths of the law. But just exactly how does one define possession? An instant in Popov's glove? Or, when the dust settled, in Hayashi's hand?

The court established that Hayashi was not part of the mob that dislodged the ball from Popov. But it rightly was concerned that if Popov got nothing, it would send a signal that mob rules.

"This case demands vindication of an important principle," San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy said. "We are a nation governed by law, not by brute force."

In the end, the judge ruled that both men should split whatever proceeds come from selling the ball, which has sat in a safe-deposit box for months while the lawyers hashed things out.

We like this decision. When the legal claims appear to be equal in weight, the decision should reflect that. And it does.

The only thing not equal in this entire story is Barry Bonds. He's too dang good. If he wasn't in the business of hitting so many home runs, these guys wouldn't have had an opportunity to get into this mess.


Members of The Columbian's editorial board are Scott Campbell, Lou Brancaccio, Tom Koenninger, Douglas E. Ness and editorial writers Elizabeth Hovde and Michael Zuzel. Editorials in the column above represent the views of the board and editorial writers. Letters, articles, cartoons and other elements on the Opinions, Other Opinions and View pages do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of the newspaper.


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

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