Superficial research produces one-dimensional, sterile debate. A case in point is crime in North American cities. Much of the commentary we read and hear focuses on two opposing positions, neither of which resonates with common sense.

One side of the argument is represented by hard-nosed crime fighters. Their argument comes in two parts. First, they advocate cracking down on petty offenders – squeegee kids, panhandlers, vandals and the like – and maintain that the result will be a decrease in major crime. Secondly, they call for computer-assisted rapid response, whereby police descend upon an area where there has been a succession of offences in order to clamp down on the offenders. Winnipeg has lately adopted this strategy, referring to it as CrimeStat.
The crime-fighting approach is often associated with the name of Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York City, who presided over the implementation of such tactics and was able to point to a substantial reduction in crime rates. The figures seem convincing, but common sense raises an antenna. How likely is it actually that cracking down on squeegee kids or scribblers of graffiti will stop future car theft rings, international drug cartels and murderers in their tracks?
As for the rapid response tactic, although speeding to the scene of previous crimes might help in going after neighbourhood-based gangs, one can’t help but wonder how likely it is that, as a generality, a particular area of a city will be the scene of a number of attempted crimes in the next hour because it has been the scene of a number of crimes in the past hour. At best, the cause-and-effect connections here seem murky.
Unsatisfactory as that side of the argument seems, the rejoinder is not much better. Here we commonly encounter three lines of argument. The first questions the validity of crime statistics, pointing out, plausibly, that it is difficult to distinguish between changes in actual crime rates and changes in the frequency with which crimes are reported. A second line of argument relies on these allegedly unreliable statistics to argue that overall crime rates are decreasing throughout North America for demographic reasons: an aging population and an accompanying decline in average energy and testosterone levels, leading to a decline in lawlessness in general and violence in particular. In other words, we worry too much.
The third line of argument makes the indisputable point that prisons breed criminals, thus calling the effectiveness of enforcement itself into question. These arguments, like those of the crime-fighters, seem to carry a considerable amount of weight, but at the same time we know that declining crime rates are not quite the same thing as being safe in our homes and in the streets. As for the ineffectiveness of prison: Point taken, but what is the alternative? Are we to do nothing about crime?
In the matter of urban crime, my perspective is that of an informed amateur. I claim no special expertise, but it is part of my job to stay abreast of urban issues, and, after a lifetime of research, I think I can spot the symptoms of superficial research. I don’t have better answers than the experts do, but I have suspected for some time that either the experts are not doing their homework, or their homework is not being reflected in the public debate.
The latter suspicion was reinforced by a fascinating and suggestive article in a recent issue of the Urban Affairs Review. The literature review that introduces the article makes it clear that there is quite a lot of good research that has not been reflected in the public debate. The article itself, by John Hagedorn and Brigid Rauch, is underpinned by superb, in-depth research of how crime rates are influenced by less obvious factors than those that are considered in the public debates. The study focuses on how the organization of criminal gangs and local public housing policies has interacted with crime rates.
The article uses these data to try to explain why similar enforcement policies and similar social environments in Chicago and New York in the 1990s produced falling crime rates in New York and rising ones in Chicago. In the process the authors show how imaginative and assiduous research can shed new light on tiresome, one-dimensional old debates.
The first finding is that Chicago’s criminal gangs were highly institutionalized, meaning that they had deep ties to the communities they were part of and organizational structures that survived generational change. New York gangs lacked similarly high levels of institutionalization. As a result, when New York police went after the gangs, they actually succeeded in breaking them up and halting many of their activities. In Chicago, the more highly institutionalized gangs, instead of being broken up by police enforcement, were fragmented and fell to fighting amongst themselves. The result was that police enforcement actually resulted in temporary increases in violence, rather than the decreases that occurred in New York.
The second finding has to do with different housing policies in Chicago and New York. In New York, in the wake of the devastating decay of the South Bronx – which, for a time, turned that area into a wasteland – the city chose to respond by pumping an unprecedented $5 billion into the development of 182,000 units of affordable housing. This enabled residents and former residents of the South Bronx to stay in or return to their old neighbourhoods, and presumably to maintain community ties that lent some stability to their lives.
In Chicago, meanwhile, rather than reconstructing housing in previously devastated neighbourhoods, the city “decided to demolish the high-rise housing projects that had been built in the 1960s. Demolishing these projects represented a massive displacement of people.” (p. 447) These areas were gentrified, or commercialized, as Chicago’s downtown Loop, the city’s commercial heart, expanded to occupy the vacant land. Thus, while the residents of 182,000 housing units in New York were enabled to stay put, “in Chicago, demolition of public housing has resulted in the… displacement of more than a hundred thousand African-American public housing residents.” (p. 448) For the most part, those displaced had no alternative other than to move to other distressed neighbourhoods. “These neighbourhoods,” the authors observe “…are also the areas in Chicago of the highest rates of homicide.” (p. 449)
Hagedorn’s and Rauch’s research not only pushes the investigation of the causes of urban crime into previously unexploited areas, but also shows that the contrast between Chicago and New York is not unique to those two communities. Throughout the article, the authors adduce examples of similar situations in other cities around the world. Their research does not, in any simplistic way, offer solutions to the problems posed by urban crime, but it does suggest that, if researchers put their imaginations to work and dig more deeply, we may well develop strategies far more sophisticated than those suggested by the sterile crime-and-punishment debate that has, up to now, limited our understanding of the problem.
Want to find out more?
The findings summarized in this blog entry are carefully documented in John Hagedorn and Brigid Rauch, “Housing, gangs and homicide: What we can learn from Chicago”, Urban Affairs Review 42 (4) (March 2007), pp. 435-56.

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