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Taylor: GOP can win by modernizing Broken Windows policing


America is experiencing a resurgence in violence not seen since President Bill Clinton resided in the White House. In Washington, the headlines tell the story: an 18-year-old woman found dead in a hotel room, a man shot near Dupont Circle, and a married father of three fighting for his life after a suspected carjacker assault.

In fact, a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll conducted in January “found crime and drugs ranked fourth out of the 30 issues Americans believe are most important right now, beating out healthcare, education and the national debt.”

The situation is dire, and we don’t have the luxury of dismissing any solutions shown to be effective. To reclaim our cities from violence and lawlessness, we need to revive and modernize Broken Windows policing, and Republican officials and candidates should lead the way this election year.

While violent crimes like murder and assault rightfully grab headlines, a quick walk around most city centers today reveals seemingly insignificant laws being ignored practically everywhere, from drug use to public urination to shoplifting, and defacement of private and public property.

Policies championed by many mayors and city councils and a lack of reliable enforcement signal weakness and a lack of accountability to criminals who are growing more and more confident in their heinous acts.

The problem of low-level lawlessness leading to an escalation of violent crime is precisely what Broken Windows policing was designed to solve — and it worked.

New York City serves as a prime example of the positive effect Broken Windows policies can have. In the 1990s, NYC was grappling with a severe crime epidemic and urban decay. Residents faced daily challenges related to public safety in a city that had become synonymous with criminal activity. The crime rate was skyrocketing, leaving residents and visitors alike feeling insecure.

Sounds familiar, right? Fortunately for New Yorkers at the time, the tide shifted in 1994.

The New York Police Department — with the strong support of the city’s administration — began cracking down on quality-of-life crimes like fare evasion, public drinking and vandalism. Taking care of these seemingly minor offenses, the police were able to create an environment that discouraged criminal activity.

As a result, NYC’s crime rate plummeted by 56 percent between 1990 and 2000, and homicides dropped by 70 percent. A well-documented urban revitalization was able to take root in America’s largest city and would prove to be the envy of large cities worldwide.

Broken Windows strategies were successful in other cities, too. During the same period, crime rates dropped significantly in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, demonstrating its wide applicability and effectiveness. Cities that experienced the positive effects of Broken Windows policing reported an improvement in residents’ overall quality of life, safer streets, cleaner neighborhoods, and an enhanced sense of security.

However, after an initial wave of accolades, Broken Windows policing was subjected to a critical reassessment. Concerns that these policies perpetuate inequalities in the criminal justice system, harm minority communities, overload an already crowded prison system, and criminalize poverty — and challenges to their overall effectiveness — were raised by academics and advocates. They argue tackling minor offenses doesn’t necessarily reduce major crimes because there is no empirical evidence. As the volume of critics and the prevailing politics of cities changed, Broken Windows policing fell out of vogue.

Concerns like these are valid, but the pendulum has now swung too far back toward lawlessness. What can’t be disputed is that proactive policing in the past coincided with significant drops in overall crime rates. Protecting individual rights and promoting proactive law enforcement don’t have to be mutually exclusive. These policies can work for everyone by striking a balance between those two objectives with a specific focus on ensuring constitutionally sound policing is practiced, not just preached.

The world has changed fundamentally since the first days of Broken Windows policing was conceived and instituted, and in some ways for the better. Let’s apply what we have learned in the intervening time and apply those lessons to create a Broken Windows 2.0. It’s time for a community-based approach that combines proactive law enforcement efforts with social interventions and protects minority communities from discriminative over-policing.

This could be achieved through more visible regular foot patrols, extensive training in de-escalation methods, establishing community policing centers, and integrating better data-driven policing. America cannot fail on our watch.

Our children deserve to learn, play and live free of fear. This isn’t about going back to the past. This can be a winning issue for Republicans this election, but it is also about evolving a proven strategy to save our country and deliver justice.

Ryan J. Taylor is a Republican senior public affairs strategist at Forbes Tate Partners in Washington.