Cleaning Up Charleston

Charleston, South Carolina, has a unique accomplishment: It has reversed its crime problem. While crime continues to escalate in most other American cities, Charleston has actually reduced burglaries, armed robberies, auto thefts, and larcenies. What's their secret? In a recent issue of Policy Review, Charleston's chief of police, Reuben Greenberg, tells the story. The first target, Greenberg says, was street-level drug dealing. Open-air dealing, with its fights, assaults, turf wars, and drive-by shootings, was turning some areas of the city into wastelands. The standard approach of arresting dealers wasn't working. The dealers were out on bond or bail, and back on the streets selling again, literally within hours. But the Charleston police hit upon a strategy that proved to be simple, economical, and highly effective. They simply put a uniformed cop on a dealer's street corner--and scared off all his customers. The effect was immediate. With a policeman standing 40 feet away, no one came near the drug dealer. A car would slow down, then drive on by. The strategy worked even better when the police added a weapon to their arsenal--a Polaroid flash camera. If potential customers drove by a second time, the officer would take their photograph. And that's the last he'd see of them. Critics of the policy said dealers would just move to another street corner and keep on selling. But they didn't. They couldn't move far beyond their initial base or they'd lose their customers. And they'd risk getting killed for invading another dealer's turf. Then critics said police would have to guard the corners 24 hours a day. That fear turned out to be unfounded as well. Police learned that if they covered the drug market areas during the high-demand time--from Wednesday through Saturday--that sufficed to cut off most sales. And to drive the dealers out. The next step was to spruce up the area, make it look like a neighborhood again. That's an important part of making residents feel good about their homes again--and bringing businesses back. So Greenberg got prisoners out of jail and put them to work picking up trash, mowing weeds, painting over graffiti. The plan turned out to have an unintended benefit. Some of the prisoners had been drug dealers themselves--some of them dealing in the very neighborhood they were now cleaning up. Young boys who had once seen these men loaded down with gold chains and flashy rings now saw them wearing orange jump suits that said "County Jail" on the back. It was a sobering lesson. So where did the drug dealers go? About a third simply went out of the drug-selling business altogether, reports Police Chief Greenberg. It'd be nice if they all did, of course. But a third is not bad when you realize it was accomplished without a massive increase in manpower or money. And without overburdening the jails or the courts. What it took was treating crime as a business, and reducing the profit margin until the business was no longer worthwhile to operate. As Christians, we know that crime doesn't pay on a spiritual level--that wrongdoing kills the inner spirit of a man or woman. Well, what Police Chief Greenberg did was make sure that on an economic level, crime didn't pay either.


Chuck Colson


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