Monday, December 08, 2008

Improving "zero tolerance": Block Clubs

New York City got a whole lot of press in the 1990s for putting into practice something known as "zero tolerance" policing. Giuliani and Bill Bratton, the police chief Giuliani lauded and then forced out when he began to garner more press than the big dog, used a combination of increased police presence and Wilson and Kelling's "broken windows theory" to begin a full-on assault on the petty street crimes typically committed by the poor and indigent. Manhattanites in particular loved it (it's well nigh impossible to find many poor or homeless above ground below the park Manhattan these days), and it was widely celebrated as part of the successful "cleaning up" of New York City in the decade preceeding ours.

The theory and practice of zero tolerance are not without their critics, however. There are too many different counter-theories to cite without being tedious, but suffice to say that blanket prosecution of "quality of life offenses" (public urination, public alcohol consumption, graffiti, etc.) doesn't always please local communities, particularly when these communities exist in the liminal zone between respectability and anomie. Nobody really wants to see someone pissing in their street (there was a brouhaha about this in Boerum Hill in the spring), but at the same time, no one wants their elderly uncle who's always been a bit off to get slapped with a summons for doing what he's done down the alley for 30 years. Therein lies the potential problem with "zero-tolerance"--unless it's communnity-defined, enforcement of what a community can, does, or should "tolerate" by the police will eventually turn a community against the police. If you're trying to solve a murder or crack a drug ring, a community that resents and mistrusts your police force is not a positive thing.

So how can you marry the logic of "law and order" to community-based activism? Enter the block club. These little local orgs are simple, easily maintained, and wonderfully effective (again, too many studies to name--just google "block clubs crime prevention" or something to that effect, and you'll see what I mean), and what's more, they let residents, rather than officers, take the first steps in crime prevention. These clubs are often announced by signs that forbid some basic (and illegal) nuisances--no loud music after 10pm, no drug dealing, no drinking in public, no threatening behavior--and make good on the most common block club statement of all: "we call police." By doing so, they turn the zero-tolerance hatchet in to a scalpel, because locals know the difference between the youths hanging out who just like the shade of the corner tree and the drug dealers who use it for shady dealings, or the difference between the old guys enjoying a beer in their lawn chairs and the nasty drunk who fuels his absusive ranting with a publicly-consumed tall boy of Bud. And when the police show up, they can say with authority "we were called--someone in this neighborhood wants you to cut it out." That resonates a lot better than "we're trying out a new initiative" and builds a little local solidarity in the bargain. When everyone is a potential enforcer (and block clubs work closely with the local precincts), power is localized and accountable, not top-down and dictatorial.

The Woodbine Street Block Association in Bushwick provided a fabulous example of a block club in action: they've got a community garden (for a rant on how community gardens are amazing, click here), street decorations (my favorite use of recycled tires), and a great series of signs. I don't have the time or chops to run the numbers, but I'll be these residents enjoy a lower crime rate than the rest of Bushwick, too.

A final word of caution after a glowing review: the very thing that keeps block clubs working is community stability, which is a necessity but a two-edged sword. There have been times in recent history when "community organizations" stoned the hell out of non-white folks trying to move into working class neighborhoods, often with police compliance. The hope, of course, is that block clubs are welcoming to all as long as all meet the minimum standards of whatever social contract is in place.

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