Mayor Kent Guinn: "Broken Windows" Policing in Ocala
When I ask most people if they know what the Broken Windows theory is, they aren’t sure. So what is it? Why does it matter, and how does it apply to Ocala?
James Q. Wilson and George Kelling first introduced the theory in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic magazine. In essence, the Broken Windows theory suggests that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages more crime and disorder, including serious crime. The theory suggests that policing methods which target minor offenses such as vandalism, public drinking and panhandling help create an atmosphere of lawful order, thereby preventing more serious crimes.
The Broken Windows metaphor is one of deterioration: a building in which a broken window goes unrepaired sends a message that the business owners (and by extension, the police) cannot or will not control minor crimes, and therefore will be unable to deter more serious ones.
What exactly is the job of the police department? In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, who is widely regarded as the father of modern policing, established Nine Principles of Policing, starting with Principle No. 1: “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.” In other words, police should not be simply reacting to crime but preventing it from happening in the first place.
How do we test police efficiency? Principle No. 9 states: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.” Ultimately, the goal is to have a need for less police action. So how do we get there?
New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton began his law enforcement career in Boston in 1970 and noted that through the 1970s and 80s American police moved away from paying attention to less-serious (also known as “quality-of-life”) crimes and focused on serious crime. By 1990, Boston and New York City, as well as other cities, were experiencing historic crime levels. Robbery, prostitution, open drug sales, even rape and murder were commonplace and accepted as “normal.” Bratton became chief of the New York City Transit Police in 1990 and later commissioner of the Boston police. He played a significant role in returning two of our largest cities’ police departments to Peel’s Principles, consequently reducing crime levels to a point where citizens felt safe on their streets again. By cracking down on low-level offenders, the police not only made neighborhoods more orderly, they discovered that many misdemeanor offenders were also wanted for serious crimes. Bratton has been a leading practitioner of the Broken Windows approach, providing ample evidence that this method of policing does lead to less crime.
Do we have a significant amount of minor offenses happening in Ocala? Absolutely. Many of our citizens have accepted that it is “normal” to be asked for money by panhandlers. Often, they give it to them out of fear of being assaulted or robbed. It’s common to see a prostitute walking down Pine Avenue, or maybe you’ve seen an individual pushing a stolen shopping cart filled with their belongings around. I personally witnessed a street fight in broad daylight involving four individuals outside a downtown establishment recently. Our police officers made 42 drug trafficking arrests last year between 8th Avenue and 10th Avenue near Tuscawilla Park, an area once known as a great neighborhood. It’s “normal” for some of our downtown businesses to keep their doors locked during business hours. It’s “normal” to see food containers and debris thrown on the ground near the Salvation Army. The list goes on and on. If we don’t challenge these behaviors, if we don’t address these “broken windows,” then they will only get worse.
Let me give you a perfect example of a recent Broken Window situation here in Ocala. A number of months ago, the back of the Sovereign Building (also known as the Ocala National Bank Building) was vandalized with graffiti, facing the courthouse. Hundreds of people enter and exit that building most days, so the graffiti was in plain view to many. It should have been painted over immediately, but that didn’t happen. A month or so went by, and more graffiti showed up on the side. After two months, it was still there. Next thing you know, a few ladies entered their Ocala Film Foundation office on the second floor and happened upon a disturbing scene. Someone had broken in (through a broken window, ironically) and trashed the place. There were sleeping bags, as though people were living there; office equipment was destroyed or stolen, and trash cans had been used as toilets. Thankfully, the ladies did not enter when the office was illegally occupied, or who knows what may have happened.
Do I think that if an immediate, proactive approach had been taken with the minor crime of graffiti (which is known to be a first sign of a location in decay), then the break-in would not have happened? Without hesitation, yes. Do I think that we need to adopt Broken Windows policing in Ocala? Without hesitation, yes. Some may say this would be targeting the homeless community. Not true. I’m talking about targeting behavior, no matter where it comes from.
There are various studies going on, and we have received a few different suggestions on how to crack down on crime, but as mayor and head of the Ocala Police Department, I’ll quote Bratton and say: “Under no circumstances will I ... support anything that weakens the ability of my officers to police and keep this city safe.” Bratton conceded that you’re not going to find a “scientific study” that can support Broken Windows one way or the other. He added, “The evidence I rely on is what my eyes show me.”
I know what my eyes have shown me. Time and time again, I’ve seen where an individual arrested for one crime was found to be involved in other crimes. And, history has shown us that the lack of control of minor crime leads to greater crime levels. Cities that have adopted the Broken Windows method of policing have shown that it has the opposite effect on their crime levels. In a concerted effort, together with Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham as well as our Code Enforcement division, among other agencies, we will be implementing Broken Windows policing in Ocala. One of our first steps is a new panhandling ordinance, which will be enforced, with more measures to follow. It’s time for us to make a stand against crime and take back our city!