The recent and ongoing confrontation between authority and the poor, in places like Ferguson, MO, the Gaza Strip, and the annual WTO riots has me thinking about order and authority within poor communities. The recent bombing of the Gaza strip has a rich and morally ambidextrous background, so I won’t go into it, but I will speak to the situation in Ferguson more directly.

This is a hypothetical post founded on opinion and anecdote.  A set of questions to be answered at a later date when data and time are available.  It is about social and economic sustainability, which are just as important as environmental sustainability.

The philosophy of policing that led to the Fergus riots is called “broken windows theory”.  This holds that crime increases where there is evidence of neglect.  If you want to manage crime, manage that evidence of neglect.  Though it started out with graffiti and actual broken windows, as on the New York Subway of the1970s and 1980s, it has since progressed to “stop and frisk”, and a higher level of police scrutiny within poor communities.

While these campaigns have reduced crime in these poor communities, they have also made everyone there a suspect.  Especially people between 10 and 30 years of age.  Broken windows theory holds that people themselves can be a sign of neglect, should they be doing anything in public at all, such as walking in the middle of a deserted street, walking on the sidewalk, making a living, carrying a toy in a shopping center, or just being in our homes

The notion is that poor communities have to  be controlled for their own good, by the police, through frequent interactions, arrests, and imprisonment on charges that wealthier Americans would find unacceptable.  That’s much of why the unemployment rate in poor neighborhoods is multiples of that in even middle class neighborhoods, and 1% of Americans are currently in jail or prison.  That is a higher incarceration rate than any other nation, all for the sake of security.  

And we’ve achieved that6 goal, as the violent and property crime rates in the , states, cities, and even the worst neighborhoods are at generational lows.  Broken windows advocates would say this is a sign of success, not failure.  I claim they can do better, but they have to take a left turn from their focus on neglect and look to the success of structure and motivations.

People want to fulfill their expectations in life, be that farming, begging, data analyst, or CEO.  They don’t act irrationally within those aims.  A pickpocket is increasing their wealth through slight of hand, and the risk of getting caught is the cost of doing business.  A renter or even a squatter still lives where they live.  They are invested in the safe operation of the neighborhood as much as it protects their person and their property.  Criminals area only as brazen as they feel they can be.  The more a neighborhood sees and looks at its spaces, the more brazen criminals will have to be to commit their crimes.  

One of the causes of the decline in crime is the rise in cell phone ubiquity, meaning that drug deals once conducted in public can now be handheld by courier.  This greatly reduces conflict.  Criminals and magnates alike strive for great rewards at the expense of great risks.  It is sometimes debatable who destroys mire lives in the process.  But that is not what I am interested in here.

Any community is a self organizing and self-stable system that more or less serves the needs of its members.  People may stay in an unsafe neighborhood for reasons of family, employment, or poverty, but most work to keep it as safe as possible, with or without police.  The impersonal crime rate in many poor neighborhoods is comparable to wealthier neighborhoods, as the benefits of a good community and risks of personal censure outweigh the benefits of personal wealth through theft or the prospect of violence  The police could act as enforcers of last resort, available to remove anybody who threatens that order.  With Broken windows theory, the police are more than that.  They become headmasters and scolds, with guns.  

Enforcing order, rather than allowing it, means that the police are to be avoided, rather than called, when there is trouble.  If we trusted that the residents of all neighborhoods, even these poorest, wanted and worked for order, predictability, and the pursuit of happiness in their lives, we could renovate the meaning of policing.

This applies to terrorism as well.  The distributed network of true believers attacking the west believe that are fighting for a just cause worth dying for.  We don’t discourage them from that path by attrition or high handed tactics.  If their economies were less obviously influenced and impoverished by the West, they’d quit seeing the West as the villain.  Think of ways that restive people could want to find something better to do.  They want order too, and a cause worth dying for is terrifically ordered.  This is a long game compared to military operations, but at least it doesn’t cost as much, endanger as many lives, or prove the terrorists point for them.

A analogy is of course in traffic.  The streams and intersections of traffic on roadways or sidewalks largely forms into lanes and streams.  A crowd on a sidewalk, mall, or concert forms streams and allows movement in predictable, irregular, but consistent patterns.  The streams in crowds persist over time, even as they might meander with vary densities and stubbornness.  Through large and dangerous automotive traffic is abetted by highway engineering standards, the greatest force for traffic safety is the limbic awareness in every driver’s head that a collision would ruin their day.  

The police enforce speeding and intersection violations most often, because those are the easiest to observe.  They are not, however the greatest cause of collisions, injuries, and death.  Inattention, drowsiness, drunkenness, impatience, and following too closely are greater risks in traffic than speeding per se.  Some insurance companies and researchers are offering drover monitoring equipment to document the driver behaviors that actually cause accidents, near accidents, and emergency braking. These trade any notion of privacy for information.  What if they were used in lieu of police to govern the acceleration and braking of the vehicle when a collision was imminent, or as an internal check on the inattention of the driver?


Man, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002