Can US Fix Berlin's Broken Windows?
Germans look for new crime-fighting tools, but some doubt the New York way translates
A few years ago, the idea of a New York City police commissioner traveling abroad to lecture on how to reduce crime would have seemed like a bad joke.Skip to next paragraph
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But when former commissioner William Bratton came to Berlin last month, he met with intense interest from the public and the media.
Mr. Bratton was invited by the police union, GdP. "Every year we get together to discuss the crime statistics," says Klaus Eisenreich, secretary and spokesman of the Berlin branch of the GdP. "Every year, they're higher. We never talk about crime victims, or the damage crime causes. Now we're looking for a new approach - one which emphasizes prevention."
The new approach Eisenreich describes sees crime-fighting in the larger context of social issues, such as the breakdown of families and young people who lack jobs or apprenticeships. "Society has to come to terms with this, to take responsibility," he says. "People have to realize it's their city: They can't just dump their trash anywhere, they need to curb their dogs, they can't go spraying graffiti everywhere."
Berlin is going through an immense upheaval as it prepares for its role as the capital of a reunited Germany, not least because virtually the whole city is being rebuilt. And Germans outside Berlin are paying more attention than they did when the city was an island deep inside the former East Germany. Many of them regard their once-and-future capital with a mixture of horror and fascination - rather the way many Americans regard New York City.
And so they listened when the policeman from New York came to talk. Instead of the "[Arnold] Schwarzenegger type" that they expected, Eisenreich says, the audience saw an average-sized man in a suit and tie who talked to them about "broken windows."
'Quality of life' offenses
Just as a broken window left unrepaired invites more breaking of windows, so police tolerance of minor "quality of life" offenses - vandalism, subway fare-skipping, public drunkenness, panhandling - creates an environment in which criminals feel freer to commit more serious offenses. Keep a fare-beater off the subway, the theory, created by American professors George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, goes, and you may prevent a mugging.
This approach makes sense intuitively, and a fair amount of evidence seems to bear it out, such as New York's 49 percent drop in murders since 1994. But a close cause-and-effect relationship is not always clear.
Moreover, some critics of the Bratton approach worry that a policy of aggressive enforcement against petty crime will encourage police officers to treat everyone as a potential criminal.
"I don't want to live in a city where fare-beating on the subway gets you three days in the clink," says Heidemarie Fischer, a Social Democrat in the Berlin Chamber of Deputies.