Broken windows

Policing is not about moral judgments.

Broken windows

Gee, thanks, Rudy.

Rudolph Giuliani last week told Vancouver the way to clean up its act and decrease crime is to follow hislead in scrubbing graffiti and punishing petty crime on the streets of New York. (Funny, considering Vancouver's violent crime rate is half New York's, but I digress... .)

It's called the broken windows theory---cleaning up unsightly properties and taking a hard line on small-time crime like public peeing means less major crime---and it's one the former New York mayor espoused during his two-term reign from 1994 to 2001.

New York's overall crime rate did dip after Giuliani wiped Times Square of strip joints and started busting squeegeers; the jury's still out on whether other factors helped soften crime in New York and other cities around that time.

So could the broken windows theory work here?

Who the hell knows?

Municipal politicians and police chiefs from the late David McKinnon on have talked about employing the strategy. But if broken windows isin play in this city, it sure is hard to see.

Take graffiti, one of Giuliani's hated civic horrors and a stick up the ass of our own Halifax Regional Council for years. I've been staring at five bristol board-sized tags on the side of a house across the street from mine for going on two-and-a-half years. I see them when I lie in bed at night. I see them first thing when I wake up in the morning. They're fading from age, but that's the closest they've come to getting cleaned up.

I don't hate graffiti, but I hate these tags. They're artless, soulless, territorial piss-trails. And I wonder: Are they making my neighbourhood less safe?

In context, they're a trifle---sprayed on the side of a boarded-up building that's been deteriorating for at least the decade I've been living across the street from it. Would there be fewer shootings and beatings in my 'hood if I rented a power washer and sprayed the tags off myself? Would I never have to find another discarded needle if someone tore down the house altogether, and the nine other abandoned shacks on my block?

I've complained about the tags. To my councillor. To long-suffering dispatchers at 490-4000. I've got a page full of HRM file numbers.

And no satisfaction whatsoever.

See, instead of the broken windows theory, we get stories like the one from last week's Heraldlooking at the effectiveness of police raids on bawdy houses and escort services.

Rene Ross, executive director of Stepping Stone, a Halifax prostitution outreach and support organization, says raids don't stop prostitution from happening, they only make the job less safe for the women and men who do it, because they're forced onto the streets.

Bawdy house raids aren't real policing. They're a surface fix for a deep social issue that requires a measure of less police intervention and a dose more support for organizations like Stepping Stone.

Deputy police chief Chris McNeil talks the good talk, saying people who want to stop working in the sex trade need support and opportunities. But he also pressed his own judgment into the matter, telling the Herald, "I would defy anybody to tell me that young girls and young boys grow up to say I want to be a prostitute."

I'm sorry, but that's relevant how?

McNeil's implied distaste for sex work doesn't matter. Because policing is supposed to be about safety, not morals.

And that brings me back to Giuliani, and another piece of advice he regaled Vancouver with: Close Insite, the city's government-run safe injection site.

Supporting Insite, which provides addicts with clean needles, a safe place to inject and health counselling, Giuliani says, is "a terrible mistake."

Insite's goal is harm-reduction, not taking the hard line. It's about decreasing damage from the spread of infectious diseases and limiting people's risk of overdosing when they're shooting up. And it works.

Does Giuliani think closing up shop is going to make addicts go cold turkey? Please! It's like telling cancer patients to stop being sick. Should we start rounding up people with type 2 diabetes so they can learn their lesson through fines and probation and sentencing? Naturally not. Diabetes is a disease. So is cancer. And so is addiction.

Halifax, unfortunately, has no safe injection site. And there isn't one on the way. I don't know why I'd expect different. When the city can't get its act together to fix the broken windows---literal or metaphorical---it's difficult to look beyond those surface solutions to build a city where bigger issues get addressed and everyone---no matter which moral ground they stand on---can feel a little bit safer. a

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