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Does Public 'Disorder' Mean More Crime? An Old Debate Resurfaces

New York City has seen an outpouring of concern about disorder in public spaces, from minor violations of social norms to serious crimes. Official measures of crime are up relative to historic lows pre-pandemic, but what the data mean and how to respond are hotly contested.

Running beneath the debates are consequential questions about how to address society’s biggest social challenges. How the fault lines undergirding their arguments shift or crumble could affect urban policy for years to come, writes Ted Alcorn in the new magazine Vital City.

Disorder is a notoriously vague concept, defined as violations of physical order and social norms that don't rise to the level of crime. George Kelling and James Q. Wilson famously theorized that it could lead to more serious offenses if left unaddressed. Complaints have been loud and unrelenting: about people sleeping on the subway, turnstile jumping, trash on sidewalks and streets, “smoking, open drug use, and vandalism” in the transit system, and rare but lurid violent crimes that tabloids cover prominently.

Official data suggest a cooler response may be merited. As of October, murders were down 14 percent compared to last year, whereas other major felony offenses were up. Robberies and burglaries remained below levels the city tolerated as recently as 2013. That historical context is rarely part of the popular narrative, which is basically that New York City is coming apart at the seams.

Broadly speaking, where progressives say disorder reflects a weak social safety net, conservatives blame it on the loosening of checks against antisocial behavior.

Some leading voices are harnessing the narrative of rising disorder to proposals with enormous stakes for the future of the city, Alcorn writes.

Some attribute deteriorating conditions to landmark bail reforms the legislature made in 2019, which substantially reduced jail detention by mid-2020. In early 2022, under an onslaught of criticism, the legislature partly rolled back the reforms, but critics (including Mayor Eric Adams) won’t let up.

Former police commissioner Bill Bratton has beaten the drum for refocusing police on low-level, quality-of-life offenses that he maintains have “grown into violent crimes.”

Bratton applauded an uptick in arrests of misdemeanor crimes, particularly fare evasion and petty theft. Mayor Eric Adams has responded forcefully to other types of disorder, too, including by clearing homeless people from the subways and from encampments in hundreds of sweeps, and defending the arrest and strip search of an unlicensed mango seller. “Next day is propane tanks being on the subway system. Next day is barbecuing on the subway system,” he explained.

Progressives have pushed back on the premise that disorder and crime are up. Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the nonprofit Civil Rights Corps, argued, “An emergency focusing on interpersonal ‘crime’ committed by poor people is being manufactured before our eyes.”

City Council Member Tiffany Cabán tweeted that violent crime on the subway remains a one-in-a-million event and “fear-mongering politicians and corporate media outlets” are trying to scare New Yorkers.

Even Police Department Chief of Department Kenneth Corey said the notion that the subways are dangerous is overblown, and drew attention to data showing crime there is down from pre-pandemic levels. “There is a narrative that’s inaccurate that’s driving people’s perceptions of how safe the subway really is,” he said.

Similar storylines are playing out in other major cities, with progressive prosecutors fighting to hang on in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and in San Francisco, where perceptions of increasing disorder helped oust recently elected District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

If they want to keep their jobs, civic leaders may have no choice but to figure out how to deal with disorder.

In the run-up to midterm elections, Republicans are making crime a major part of their pitch, although Democrats are pushing back. The FBI’s woefully incomplete 2021 data leave open the possibility that crime nationwide “went up, went down or stayed the same.”

Media coverage plays an intrinsic role in these processes by echoing and amplifying fear. Bloomberg reporters showed that coverage of New York City’s uptick in violence far outstripped the actual changes in crime. It’s no surprise there’s been a measurable increase in the share of the public uneasy about crime — fears that then become the grist for further coverage, which podcaster and writer Adam Johnson dubbed “Vibes Crime Reporting.”

John Oliver devoted an episode of his HBO show Last Week Tonight to daily crime reporting and the dangers of uncritically amplifying police communications, but old habits are hard to break, Alcorn says. A public keen to reestablish its sense of security is unlikely to take comfort from the explanation that its perceptions are divorced from the facts. As Johnson acknowledged, “The vibes may be unscientific, but they are real.”


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