Augustinian Crime Fighting

Police in Newport News, Virginia, were tired of answering calls about burglaries and drug dealings in a run-down housing project. Finally, the project was scheduled for demolition. In preparation for the new construction, police decided to clean up the area: They carried away trash, removed abandoned cars, and filled in potholes. To everyone’s surprise, as soon as the housecleaning began, burglary rates dropped 35 percent. The police had inadvertently stumbled on a fresh approach to crime—a formula that’s being adopted around the country under the rubric of community policing. Instead of waiting for crime to happen, police are addressing problems of disorder that often attract crime. New York City has done this with dramatic success. Supporters of the new philosophy may not know it, but they haven’t discovered something new at all. They’re simply reviving a classic Christian understanding of crime—that it’s not only an individual act but also a violation of the social order. Hence, one of the best ways to fight crime is to restore social order. What’s happened in Newport News and New York City illustrates what criminologist James Q. Wilson calls the broken-window theory. Sociologists have discovered that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, pretty soon all the windows will be broken. Why? Because a smashed window sends a message that nobody cares, that further vandalism will incur no penalty. And once a neighborhood tolerates minor violations like window breaking, serious crime soon follows. The job of the police used to include fixing broken windows—that is, maintaining public order. In his book Police in Urban America: 1860-1920, Eric Monkkonen writes that police developed the first food and soup lines. They built police stations with extra space where migrants could stay until they found work. They referred beggars to charitable agencies. But beginning in the early twentieth century, the role of the police was increasingly restricted: They were only to combat crime. They were to wait until crime victims telephoned them. The final blow fell when the Supreme Court struck down an anti-vagrancy statute in 1972 and a statute against loitering in 1983. A domino effect followed as lower courts overturned state and municipal laws designed to restrain behavior in public places. Leaders in many major cities stood by helplessly as streets, parks, and subways succumbed to antisocial behavior, like graffiti and panhandling. These were soon followed by more serious criminal behavior, like assault and robbery. To reverse the destruction of our cities, we need to revive the classic Christian understanding of order. As Augustine wrote, true peace does not mean merely eliminating violence; it means establishing a just order—what he called the “tranquillity of order.” Like most other Americans, Christians are concerned about rising crime rates. But unlike other Americans, we have a philosophy that gives us a larger answer than merely arresting more people and building bigger prisons. An effective strategy against crime must start by asking fundamental philosophical questions: What makes a “good” community? What is the right order of society? As the Newport News neighborhood illustrates, building a rightly ordered society is the most powerful antidote to chaos and crime. And, to a world in decay, it’s a powerful witness of the biblical ideal of community.


Chuck Colson


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