Crime Downtown: Does Anything Work?

Editors’s note: The Downtown Curmudgeon is very happy to welcome Lawrence Houstoun as a guest columnist. Larry is well known for his two books on downtown BIDs as well as for his many articles on a wide variety of downtown subjects ranging from housing and office workers to public spaces and bicycle ridership. I think you will find his column on downtown crime — as is usual with his writings — thoughtful,  provocative, well written and worth reading. Without further ado, here’s Larry:

Crime Downtown

In the 1970’s, many of the  business centers of America’s older cities had reputations for widespread crime. The media–news as well as fiction– contributed greatly to the scary reputations. One evening TV news director was said to set priorities with this slogan—“If it bleeds, it leads”. As customers and businesses abandoned the traditional places to shop and run their businesses a great deal of commercial real estate was marked down and / or abandoned. Few believed that central business districts would ever recover. Long neglected buildings, dimly lighted blocks, empty stores—all contributed to the negative images of America’s downtowns.  Various remedies were suggested.

In reviewing the types of measures tried, this article focuses on business improvement districts (BIDs) which are functioning in 1500 downtowns in North America. Their mission is simply to strengthen economically the business prospects of private enterprises  operating in a shared environment. Business led boards of directors share the costs and set the priorities. At that time, no priority ranked higher than reduction of crime and fear of crime.

The numbered sections below are approximately in order of the period in which each remedy was popular.

  1.  More Cops

Often, the first attempt at economic  recovery was  an appeal to the affected municipalities to increase police presence downtown. The common response to these requests was that there was not enough money in the local budgets for even a token police expansion. Police departments added that business districts had less crime than many residential neighborhoods and did not warrant priority.

  1. More People

Writing in 1961 (“ Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Vintage) , urbanist Jane Jacobs noted the frequently expressed desire to increase the number of police  in order to reassure pedestrians. Jacobs wrote that there would never be enough police  for this purpose. She argued instead that the most successful technique to reassure pedestrians in cities is the presence of more pedestrians. She   observed that empty sidewalks, not ones packed with people ,are the most frightening.

In the 1970’s, crime and fear of  crime had induced many businesses to move to what appeared to be locations  less frightening. Downtowns lost businesses and their former convenience as places to work and shop. The media were full of reports of “urban crime”, widely believed to be concentrated in the downtowns, places which were familiar to shoppers and office employees. Fewer shoppers induced more people to avoid traditional commercial centers.

  1. More Patrols: Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)

Wearing distinctive uniforms, these radio equipped men and women were invented by the early BIDs to reassure pedestrians that the  downtown is safe because official-looking  “Ambassadors” were watching. Although they lack police powers, they were sold as being the “eyes and ears” of police departments. If something is wrong, the uniformed “Ambassadors” have cell phones and can reach the police through the BID central office.

A lot of BID assessment dollars have been directed toward this crime “remedy”. The University City BID in Philadelphia, for example, has “42 Safety Ambassadors patrolling neighborhood streets on bikes and on foot seven days a week from 10am to 3am.” BIDs typically believe that these staff members provide a measure of protection to persons on sidewalks. In addition to the safety benefits, these men and women may also provide walking escorts, vehicular services and homeless outreach. In 2012, this totaled 120,571 patrol hours in University City.

In practice, these  BID patrollers probably do reassure some uneasy pedestrians simply by their visible presence. Visibility comes with  a price, however. To be effective, there must be enough of them throughout the business districts to be readily seen by pedestrians, including during evenings  when pedestrians are  going home  from entertainment and  dinner after dark. To meet this challenge requires  more than two shifts to maintain coverage ,  accounting for holidays, vacations, sick leave, etc. This implies a substantial personnel payroll, including the costs of management and staff training, and often  amount to a third of BID total budgets. ( While BIDs emphasize their security role, these men and women may also be assigned to count homeless and code violations or assist drivers in emergencies.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable research revealing the extent to which  the uniformed personnel succeed in their primary mission—lessening fear on the sidewalks. For example, do otherwise fearful pedestrians actually shop or dine more often because uniformed BID employees patrol the district? No one knows.

Unhelpful Research

Much that appears to be research, however, provides little or no useful information to guide subsequent downtown leaders.  With a quarter century of experience, there is surprisingly little qualified examinations of any aspect of BID functions. Some research studies lump all  BID services together, in which case groups planning such organizations cannot profit from this experience; eg  what BID services actually make a significant difference? Some observers believe that simply keeping sidewalks  clean is a sign to criminals that the district is a bad place for them, who then may avoid it. Some researchers see the existence of a BID itself as sufficient to reduce crime. The announced completion  of a study in Los Angeles, for example, suggested that any shape or content of BIDs cuts crime in the study  areas, regardless of the nature of its services. Apparently, if a BID existed in or near an area where the study team worked and crime was lessened it seemed that the existence of any form of BID contributed to that improved condition. Did strolling “safety” Ambassadors or substantially enhanced lighting ,for example, make a difference? What about keeping shop windows lighted after normal hours? These and comparable alternatives are not reported.

Unanswered Questions

Another university based  study team, also working in Los  Angeles, studied the effect of zoning in eight  relatively  high crime areas with different forms of zoned land uses. The team found that “mixed commercial and residential zoned areas are associated with lower crime rates than are commercial-only zoned areas. “ This report reads in part: “Our results suggest that mixing ‘residential only’ zoning into commercial blocks may be a promising means of reducing crime”. Readers can come to their own conclusions regarding the utility of this advice as a tool for minimizing crime– zone it away? Move the commercial district?

Do walking patrols during daylight hours make pedestrians feel safer or reduce crime as many BIDs claim? Does maintaining walking patrols all night warrant the substantial added cost?  If the BID can generate sufficient pedestrian traffic, does this make a difference in fear or crime levels?  There is no reliable evidence to justify any of these substantial BID expenses. If police could lessen crime or fear at something like half the unit cost of armed officers, would this not be a popular police option in commercial areas?

For a brief while a Rutgers University based social scientist, George Kelling, put forward an attractive theory, suggesting that poorly maintained urban properties sent a signal to criminals that such an area of social disorder was a good place to operate—that is, the existence of “broken windows” and poor  maintenance, encourages more misbehavior. BID expert David Milder, countered that an excessive amount of attention to sidewalk sanitation often distracted BIDs from fundamental requirements such as redeveloping  commercial centers, business recruitment, facade improvements, etc.

Positive Results

If social science research provides little guidance in designing programs to overcome  crime and fear of crime , there are scattered examples of successful working programs that warrant examining. One or two bars in the East Falls, Philadelphia neighborhood were generating a rash of hold ups. The BID purchased and installed a half dozen motion detecting cameras.  Periodically or when a problem was reported, the local police checked the cameras for evidence. It turned out that the responsible people lived in the neighborhood. The sight of the camera installation scared off the bad guys and the crime wave ended. On the assumption that it might come back, several merchants volunteered to monitored the cameras. Among the selling points, the BID leadership stressed that the cameras were “on duty” 24 hours a day .

Downtown Washington DC BID was among the earliest districts to offer closed circuit tv  as well as uniformed patrols as part of  their public safety services. Noting the effect of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, the BID has issued a “leadership paper” designed to enhance property owners, managers and businesses ability to respond to “natural and man made disasters.”

An area on the Brooklyn,  NY  waterfront long known for its crime, organized walking patrols in the early days of the BID (Brooklyn Navy Yard.) The board felt that reducing crime was its sole need and proceeded on that basis. Some years later, it was agreed that the patrols were no long heeded and the program was ended or “mothballed”.

The Circumstances Have Changed; Have the BIDs?

Crime is not what it used to be in America’s cities. Far from the days when  fear was widely seen as the ultimate obstacle to urban recovery, most Downtowns are now filled with stores and places to eat and they have managed that transformation without traditional department store anchors. Old office buildings, converted to attractive, middle income places  to live , brought customers closer to stores and restaurants for their mutual benefit. People are enjoying places that were written off not long ago . BIDs are formed  and properties are attracting investments in commercial centers without worries about fear of crime. A new optimism has replaced the old pessimism. The reduction of fear in shopping districts as implied by the growth of residents in central cities has been part of a broader change in public attitudes about cities.

In a paper published in 2000 (http// 2000Env Res author Manuscript.pdf)(PDF),  Rick Nevin found that America’s crime rates correlate closely  with the use of lead in gasoline. As  lead emissions increased, crime increased. As the use of lead declined, crime rates declined. Nevins wrote that use of Tetraethyl lead in gasoline explained 90% of the variations of violent crime in America and explained comparable results in a half dozen  other countries.  America has been looking in the wrong places and at the wrong manifestations of urban crime and therefore  solutions  to this important problem remain beyond our grasp. Patrolling Ambassadors, more cops, rezoning, the mix of BID programs seem not to matter, nor does their location.  If Nevins’ research  continues to hold up, the success has been the direct result of Federal regulation

One sees fewer BID reports claiming that  Ambassadors or other BID programs were responsible for a decline in crime or fear during the period when urban crime had improved nationally. These claims of success included a great many downtowns without BIDs. Indeed, the “urban crime” that was once seen as downtowns’ insoluble economic problem has attracted none of the merchant hysteria or the urban flight of earlier years. Did BIDs correct the problems of crime and fear? Certainly not.

Nevertheless, for the most part the walking patrols continue. What message are downtown leaders sending?

Lawrence Houstoun