NYPD Blues

Precinct 75 in Brooklyn used to be one of the most dangerous places to live in America. Young men turned the streets into open-air drug markets. The sound of gunshots frequently shattered the peace. Parents were afraid to let their children play outside--with good reason: Just three years ago, the neighborhood experienced 126 homicides. But last year, homicides were down by an astonishing 65 percent. What's behind this phenomenal decline? For years, the New York Police Department had relied on traditional anti-crime measures: more arrests, longer prison terms. But instead of getting better, the neighborhood's crime problem got worse. In 1993, more people were murdered in this one precinct than in many of America's largest cities. But then the NYPD adopted a new philosophy of crime. Instead of treating crime as an assault on the individual victim, the New York Police Department began treating it as an assault on the public order. Solving crime then meant looking for ways to rebuild the social order. The NYPD decided to show zero tolerance not only for crime itself but also for any social disorder. In high-crime neighborhoods, police often turn a blind eye to such minor violations as running a red light. But now police began cracking down on all traffic violators, looking for guns and drugs. They chased away loiterers, who often turned out to be drug dealers looking for a sale. They hired more cops to walk the beat. These measures may seem minor. They don't attack any major crimes directly. Yet they had an enormous effect on the neighborhood's overall crime rate. Why? Because small violations of the public order send a signal that nobody cares about the neighborhood. Criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling call this the "broken window syndrome." If authorities overlook petty offenses like vandalism and graffiti, they invite more serious offenses such as assault and murder. That's why cracking down on trivial offenses can discourage far more serious crime. Wilson and Kelling may not know it, but they are echoing a classic Christian understanding of crime. Augustine wrote that peace should be thought of as "right order." If the right order of the community is disturbed, and that disturbance is not addressed immediately, more chaos inevitably follows. When the cops in Precinct 75 began going after loiterers and traffic violators, they were reestablishing the "right order" of their community. Today, kids in the 75th Precinct play in the streets again. Adults sit on their stoops and visit with one another. Helping Americans change the way they think about crime and punishment is the reason my colleague Dan Van Ness and I founded Justice Fellowship as an arm of Prison Fellowship in 1983. We had both spent many years working in prison ministry, and we had come to the same conclusion: Current solutions just weren't working. We realized we needed to reintroduce basic biblical concepts about crime into America's criminal justice system. In the next few pages I'll be telling you more about new ways of looking at crime and punishment. I hope you'll keep reading. Like the people of New York's Precinct 75, we can work together to find real solutions to crime.  


Chuck Colson


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