Chicago’s mayoral primary, which cost Lori Lightfoot her job last month, has already been sanded down into an object lesson in how high crime will lose Democrats elections. But it was clear, even on election night, that the story wasn’t nearly so tidy.
Look at the Chicago map, and you’ll note that people who live in high-crime neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly for Lightfoot—and not for front-runner Paul Vallas, who had the endorsement of the police union. Conversely, if the Paul Vallas Zone—the wedge of Chicago running north and northwest from the Loop whose 1.3 million residents rejected the mayor—were a city, it would be one of the safest big cities in the country, with a murder rate just a tick above the national average.
In other words, Chicago’s mayoral election offers another illustration of the dynamic observed in the 2022 midterms, in which the people least affected by crime support the most-aggressive pro-police politicians. Why different voters have different responses to crime is not rocket science: Lightfoot and her voters are Black; Vallas and his voters are white. In a WBEZ/Sun-Times poll from last month, Black Chicagoans were almost twice as likely to feel unsafe (84 percent) as their white neighbors (49 percent)—but white Chicagoans were twice as likely (61 percent) as their Black neighbors (30 percent) to say that crime was the top issue affecting the city.
The more interesting question is how voters in the Vallas Zone got so worried about crime in the first place. The Vallas Zone doesn’t exist just in Chicago; it’s a state of mind occupied by a much larger group of American voters whose concern about violent crime has become a major force in electoral politics—even as their own neighborhoods remain mostly unaffected, in a context where most violent crime is at or near a 30-year low. It goes all the way up to President Joe Biden, who has decided to overrule D.C.’s criminal code reform, after a panic about the maximum sentence for armed carjacking being a mere 24 years in prison. In a debate last week over whether to preempt the local bill, GOP Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas said the District “no longer belongs to the people. The city now belongs to the criminals.”
There are plenty of explanations for this overcooked rhetoric. First, violent crime may be flat overall, but murders have risen significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which I’m aware is like saying dinner was great except for the main course. Nationally, murders are up by almost 30 percent since 2019—a similar rate of increase to Chicago (43 percent) and D.C. (30 percent). Second, there’s nothing odd about people personally unaffected by crime being worried about it. In fact, it is just this fear, of slipping from the “suburban lifestyle dream” to “worse than Afghanistan,” that motivates so much of conservative politics. Third, most of the country is locked in a media crime narrative cycle driven by ubiquitous phone cameras that makes the TV-news adage of “If it bleeds, it leads” look quaint. (If there are pics, it clicks.) On Fox News and social networks, hate crimes, shoplifting, and anything involving an undocumented perp is a viral news cycle unto itself. (If it offends, it trends!) Finally, some older Americans seem to have tragically lost the ability to process new memories of city life, their hippocampi zapped by a cellphone video of teenagers stealing North Face jackets in the summer of 2020.
The most likely explanation, I think, is that American cities have experienced some very prominent signs of disorder since the pandemic that don’t show up in crime data: homeless encampments, people in visible mental distress, public drug use, deranged driving, smoking on trains, turnstile hopping, rats, shuttered storefronts, empty streets. Rightly or wrongly, these elements of the urban landscape send signals of a society in decline that are more powerful than arcane debates about shoplifting data. And we’ve decided to group all this social breakdown in with the homicide surge under the umbrella of crime, a categorization that is sometimes inaccurate (homelessness isn’t a crime) and mostly counterproductive (police don’t build homes).
This disjointed relationship between violent crime, civic disorder, and public concern isn’t new. In fact, it’s at the core of the theory that has shaped American policing for much of the past two generations.
That a breakdown in everyday social norms might make people irrationally concerned for their safety was the thesis of a famous 1982 essay in the Atlantic, “Broken Windows,” by the criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. Kelling later honed his pitch for what became known as the “broken windows” policing strategy: cracking down on “grinding, day-to-day incivilities and minor street offenses that erode the quality of urban life, make people afraid, and create the milieu within which serious crime flourishes.”
There was a sleight of hand in that set of three: Did “incivilities” really create a milieu for serious crime? Or merely make people afraid?
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who adopted this policing approach after taking office in 1994, always argued that the answer was both. He instructed the NYPD to arrest the squeegee men who wiped down car windshields at red lights and pursue other anodyne offenses, such as panhandling and playing loud music. Because he oversaw a drop from record highs in felonies like murder and auto theft, Giuliani claimed that thinking small had produced big effects: “You can’t be too busy to pay attention to those things,” he said in his farewell address, “because those are the things that underlie the problems of crime that you have in your society.” Broken windows policing spread, and William Bratton, who ran the police in New York and Los Angeles, said that Kelling had “been the most profound influence on American policing in the last 40 or 50 years.”
But Kelling himself was always a little more circumspect about the point of broken windows. The original essay began with a story of officers on foot patrol in Newark, New Jersey, an experiment that ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the time, because cops on a neighborhood beat would be unable to quickly respond to 911 calls. Sure enough, crime did not fall thanks to this approach—it may have even gone up. But residents felt safer and believed that crime had gone down. And that, Wilson and Kelling wrote, was what mattered. In fact, they argued, solving crimes had always been a secondary responsibility of police after keeping order.
In the 2010s, sociologists began to demonstrate serious doubts about the Giuliani narrative that aggressively policing small crimes stops big ones. New York’s precipitous crime decline had come after a steep rise, suggesting a reversion to the mean. Crime had fallen in virtually all American cities at the same time. Numbers kept dropping even after one of the supposed cornerstones of the strategy, Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy, was halted by his successor, Bill de Blasio. The stakes of this debate were heightened by a number of tragedies that broke through the general pattern of racist civil rights abuses, including the suicide of Khalif Browder, who spent 700 days in solitary confinement for allegedly stealing a backpack, and the death of Eric Garner, after he was put in a police chokehold for selling cigarettes. The harms of broken windows policing were clear. But were the benefits all we’d been promised?
Kelling’s response to that query was surprisingly ambivalent. “Even if broken windows did not have a substantial impact on crime, order is an end in itself in a cosmopolitan, diverse world,” he told NPR in 2016. “Strangers have to feel comfortable moving through communities for those communities to thrive. Order is an end in itself, and it doesn’t need the justification of serious crime.”
Disentangling those two problems—urban disorder and violent crime—leads us to some challenging realizations. It raises the confounding prospect that it will not matter, in voters’ minds, if police succeed in raising their abysmal clearance rates for murder, or if a massive federal investment in violence interruption programs gets results, if they still see someone jump a turnstile on the way to work. In Vox, Rachel Cohen writes that a handful of mayors have explicitly said that their constituents do not care about progress in housing the homeless unless the tent encampments disappear. According to Pew, “In 22 of 26 Gallup surveys conducted since 1993, at least six-in-ten U.S. adults said there was more crime nationally than there was the year before, despite the general downward trend in the national violent crime rate during most of that period.” (To be very clear, politics aren’t everything: It will matter to the many people whose lives are affected if more homicides are solved and fewer occur in the first place, and it’s worth doing anyway.)
On the positive side, however, it makes you wonder what an enlightened mayor might accomplish by explicitly distinguishing between crime and disorder, focusing police resources on stopping and solving crimes while thinking more creatively about the knottier problem of public norms, knowing what we know now about the harmful legacy of broken windows policing.
Could a canny leader create cover for criminal justice reform simply by addressing noncriminal disorder? To take the original metaphor, if one broken window leads to more broken windows, why not hire a rapid-response team of glassworkers? Seen through this lens, investments like safe injection sites and mental health clinics are far more likely to make an impact on the sense of public order than ever-present squad cars flashing red and blue.
The easiest possible solution comes from Jane Jacobs, who argued that the maintenance of urban order depended on nothing more than “eyes on the street,” a network of stakeholders who felt a sense of ownership over public space and would enforce the norms of civil society through watchful gazes or explicit intervention. Clearly, this is something that has gone missing from many American downtowns during the pandemic. Depopulated public spaces may or may not encourage misbehavior—but they certainly make it more visible.
Still, the concept comes with baggage. The story Jacobs tells in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a weird one: A man downstairs from her apartment is in a “suppressed struggle” to get an 8-year-old girl to walk with him, but she won’t move. Neighbors emerge from their shops and their windows to watch. Jacobs: “The man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.” (Today they’d have their smartphones out.)
The punchline the famous urbanist delivers next is shocking: “I am sorry—purely sorry for dramatic purposes—to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.” Suddenly, the moral of the story changes: These nosy neighbors are participating in a parent’s worst nightmare, recasting a humdrum battle with an obstinate kid as society’s most sinister behavior.
It puts a cautionary spin on Jacobs’ famous observation: Public order is a deeply subjective concept, and the pursuit of an orderly city is as prone to bias as the pursuit of a safe one. Isn’t a city also supposed to be a place where society’s norms can be freely transgressed by people who reject the quiet surveillance of a suburban cul-de-sac?
More substantively, the idea of public order—like so much in American society—is subject to racial prejudice. In a study of Chicago, Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush note, “As the concentration of minority groups and poverty increases, residents of all races perceive heightened disorder even after we account for an extensive array of personal characteristics and independently observed neighborhood conditions.”
This race-based sense of order is the buried theme of the neighborhood-level social network Nextdoor, as well as the source of the cultural phenomenon of the Karen, someone with an excessive interest in other people’s behavior, especially a white woman taking an interest in the behavior of her Black and brown neighbors. It’s the inescapable context for a handful of ongoing disputes about what kind of behavior breaches the threshold of dangerous disorder in American cities—parades of dirt-bike riders that run red lights on summer days? Cars that play loud music? Even controlling speeding cars has become polarized along these lines. In short, even if we take the necessary step of recognizing that crime and disorder are different problems with different solutions, striving to give voters the sublime city they want could easily turn ugly.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be specific about what, exactly, doesn’t sit right about the American city in 2023. But it does suggest that a focus on public order is likely to be fraught, certainly if it involves the police, and possibly even if it doesn’t. There are some neutral paths toward a city that feels good to everyone, like clean streets, handsome parks, and pest control, but few objective measures to tell us when we’ve gotten there. Fighting crime—actual crime—can at least be put down in numbers.