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.

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.

Wolfgang Wieland, leader of the Greens in the Chamber of Deputies and a critic of the Bratton approach, ticks off several reasons not to be impressed with the "broken windows" school of crime-fighting. Big-city crime rates in US are falling in general, not just in cities that have taken the Bratton approach; the high-crime-age population (ages 17 through 23) is smaller; and the crack cocaine wave is subsiding.

New York's crime rates have fallen, Mr. Wieland suggests, because they started out so high. "For years, the New York City police were on vacation," he says. "And there were 'no go' areas in parts of the city. You can't have that."

In Berlin, he acknowledges, "Yes, you can say we're having a crime wave. But - and this is an important but - objectively, the situation here is just not comparable to New York."

Statistics bear him out: The much-improved murder rate in New York City is higher than the much-worsened rate of Berlin: There were 9 homicides per 100,000 Berliners last year compared with 13 per 100,000 New Yorkers.

Police-state tactics?

Wieland warns that aggressive enforcement against petty crimes is likely to be seen as "police state" tactics. Because of Germany's Nazi past, that charge is taken particularly seriously here.

At least one person on the street agrees with him. A woman waiting for a subway train a few days ago pointed out to her companion a badly defaced public telephone on the platform. "It's disgraceful, all smeared with paint like that."

When asked whether she thought the police should go after such graffiti artists, she replied, "No, that's not a matter for the police. It's a question of bringing children up properly. If the police have to go after someone, they should go after the parents first."

'Turning' point for crime

Berliners are quick to date the increase in crime to the Wende, or "turning," as the opening of the Berlin Wall and lifting of the Iron Curtain is called. Open borders have left Berlin feeling vulnerable to Russian mafia and Polish car thieves. "For years, Berliners lived all walled in, and they complained about it, but they really had it pretty good. Now we're having to face the problems of an open city," Eisenreich says.

Moreover, in the days when West Berlin was a protected island, "politicians could always pass the buck to the federal government [which subsidized Berlin heavily] or the Allies," the victors of World War II who had the last word on Berlin, Eisenreich says. He laments the failure of the proposed merger of Berlin with Brandenburg, the German state that surrounds it, to win popular support in a referendum last year.

Affluent Berliners already are fleeing the city for surrounding communities. If the merger had gone through, the residents of these suburbs would have retained a connection to the city through a unified government. Now Berlin officials are concerned about "slumification" of city neighborhoods. "We had a giant opportunity and we blew it," Eisenreich says.

Though is some ways the Bratton visit was a "polarizing event," he says, it also did some good. "It has started a conversation that will go on all year."

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