Michael Wagar Commentary: Time to Embrace ‘Broken Windows’ Concept in Attacking Local Crime

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I visited a friend in need in Seattle about a month ago. As I drove from the downtown waterfront through the Chinatown-International District and up onto Beacon Hill, my favorite big city was showing its warts.

Garbage-strewn homeless camps littered sidewalks and vacant lots. Graffiti was sprayed everywhere. Many businesses that used to be vibrant in the downtown core were boarded up.

This past week another friend of mine, who used to take classes at Portland State University in the heart of that once great city, drove through her old stomping grounds.

“I wanted to check out my old college, where I used to work, where I used to live and a few of my favorite places to relax/walk/run,” she wrote on Facebook.

She was driving with her 2-year-old daughter. Her husband asked her not to take the girl out of the car while in downtown Portland. She at first thought he was being “extreme. “Turns out, he wasn’t … Once I saw the conditions I agreed.

“It was devastating ... The streets, highways and freeways are lined with homeless camps. Much of my old college and housing was boarded up. Everything was extremely dirty. My old places of employment were boarded up. Lots of tagging. The waterfront hasn’t been cared for. Several tents and garbage. You don’t see many out walking or enjoying fresh air. It just looked sad.

“It’s apparent why so many want out of the big cities on the West Coast and into the suburbs and rural areas. I hope we can someday balance these once beautiful cities. And make them safe again.”

There are solutions. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is perhaps most recently known for an “insane” news conference back in November of last year when he was attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He had sweaty beads of brown hair dye dripping down the side of his face. The press conference was set between a crematorium and a sex outlet.

Giuliani should be better known for his efforts following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was mayor of Gotham City during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. For his leadership, Giulliani was called, by Oprah no less — “America’s Mayor.” Time magazine named him Person of the Year.

But what Giuliani should be honored for is his part in cleaning up the city of New York, as detailed in a 2009 article in The City Journal, a New York magazine. In the late-1980s and into the 1990s, New York was racked with crime, from murders to burglaries to drug deals and car thefts. Signs popped up inside cars stating “there are no radios inside this car.”

New York’s subsequent drop in crime was called “one of the most remarkable stories in the history of urban crime,” as stated by a University of California law professor.

What Giuliani, and other leaders in The Big Apple did was target petty crime, from graffiti to panhandling to prostitution to low-level drug dealing. One group even hired homeless people to clean the streets. Minor crimes were swiftly dealt with, despite howls of protest by such groups as the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The effort was coined “Broken Windows.” An article in The Atlantic at the time stated minor disorders and offenses lead to serious crime and decay. The article theorized that government and community efforts would lead to reduced crime.

Unpopular with much of the left, the idea that fixing petty crime, such as repairing broken windows and covering over graffiti, of not putting up with minor offenses, could lead to reduced crime — came from the right.

A subsequent study from a university in the Netherlands included placing money hanging out of a mailbox. When the mailbox was clean of graffiti, only 13 percent of the people strolling by stole the money. When the mailbox was marked with graffiti, 27 percent took the cash.

In an article published by The Seattle Times late last month, the city of Bellevue was compared to the city of Seattle. The Seattle City Council focuses on defunding the police and allowing homeless to camp out in parks and sidewalks in the heart of the Emerald City.

Early last year, the city suffered from riots, looting, vandalism and arson. That trend looks to continue. According to the Times’ article, “low-level crimes” are tolerated and police response times are lacking.

In Bellevue, in contrast, the chronic problems of Seattle are nowhere to be found. The city council is composed of members who have private-sector backgrounds. In Bellevue, camping on sidewalks is not allowed. The homeless population is low. Low-level crimes such as shoplifting are treated seriously, often resulting in jail.

And Bellevue is booming, with Amazon relocating offices and intending to employ upwards of 25,000 in Bellevue next year. Back in Seattle, as the Times’ article editorialized, “Unless the political situation (in Seattle) is corrected, it will take years to repair the damage.”

Here in Centralia, we have had a mini-movement to clean up the city for the past couple of years led by former downtown business owner Steve Kopa. He leads a volunteer effort that goes out each Saturday and picks up trash and cleans out abandoned homeless camps. Earlier this year, Kopa and his crew were honored with an annual award from The Chronicle for their efforts. Kopa estimates his group has collected more than 66,000 pounds of trash (the city of Centralia is commended for supplying the crew with clean-up equipment such as garbage bags and grabber tools).

“Anybody can do this,” Kopa said. “They can pick up in front of their house, they can clean up their road.”

The concept of “Broken Windows,” as exemplified by Kopa and his volunteers, should be expanded across Lewis County, and the attack on petty crime should also be embraced by local law enforcement.

At the same time, increased social services such as homeless shelters and drug and mental illness treatment should be expanded.

Fixing “Broken Windows” — not tolerating petty crime, cleaning up graffiti and the like — needs to be a major part of Lewis County’s response to crime.

Let’s go the way of Bellevue, not Seattle.

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Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and editor of The Chronicle.

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