Taking Crime Off London’s Streets

With the recent news stories of youth murders in central London there has been much wringing of hands and posturing by politicians and so-called experts in youth, parental, drug and obesity matters on not only what is wrong but also the solution to the problem. 

My view is that all the past pontificating on this issue has proved ineffective. So why are we still searching for answers when we have yet to attempt the tried and tested big city solution from the other side of the Atlantic?

The zero tolerance crackdown by New York’s Mayor Rudi Giuliani in the early-to-mid 1990s continues to keep that city going forward as a tourist attraction and a place where people want to live and visit without fear.

London needs a dramatic turnaround in its crime-busting policies and it needs it now. Our city is slipping into an acceptance of fear and a sense of dread of young people in groups. Many parks are now no-go areas and our quality of life is being attacked by aggressive begging, graffiti, binge drinking and many other forms of anti-social behaviour.

Talking to young people who are faced with our developing culture of aggression the answer seems to be "not to look at anyone you don’t know". I was reminded of this comment when I read an article recently on Giuliani where the Mayor talked of his shock at seeing a New York tourist brochure with tips on how a visitor might avoid crime. One of the suggestions was "avoid eye contact." Giuliani wrote later ? "all of a sudden, the depth of my city’s problems came into stark focus. Why would anyone visit a city in which you can’t look at people?"

Politicians need to focus, and for Giuliani, the big focus was on crime. In 1993 when he was first elected Mayor (a role with much greater powers than the London equivalent), New York City was in deep trouble. Not confined to the Bronx and Harlem, lawlessness had spread all over Manhattan and many of the outer boroughs.

This year the murders of our young people have come in all parts of London and gang names are being bandied about as acceptable parts of our new social culture. We might hate the idea of gangs but we are doing very little to stop their development and very little to halt the drug and gun culture which is everywhere.

I do not believe that there is the same growing sense of anarchy in London as there was in New York in the nineties but we are losing ground to a culture of instability. Cities throughout Europe have now got the disease of graffiti which has been imported so powerfully from US Television. It will not go away while we shrug our shoulders.

London is vital to this nation’s economic strength. The quality of our urban life is diminishing and many people remain in their houses but stay behind locked doors while the value of their properties rises exponentially. When that stops I suspect we will see a massive exodus by Londoners, taking their money and running off to calmer shores. That is unless we get back full control of our city.

It is not enough that drug-dealing is being seen on our streets and within housing estates where it frightens the young and old alike. We have street sleepers being cared for in the name of charity. We have aggressive begging. We even have aggressive chuggers, those excitable young people who accost Londoners for supposed good charity causes. Whatever happened to the days when a person could walk down central London streets and feel safe? People walk less and less relaxedly through our streets ? today they always need to know where they are and where they are going.

We live in a city where van drivers leave their cars outside their homes with a sign (no tools left inside).  Yet we have a Prime Minister who on leaving office talks of the reduction in crime his government have created. What rubbish. Who bothers to ring the police today except for insurance purposes? My postbag is full of victims who feel that they are treated abominably by the police while the perpetrators are laughing at us. Many people now have a sense of dread that a small car accident will involve a driver without insurance and many who are the injured party often now drive off fearing greater violence.

The "Broken Windows" theory is coming more and more to the fore but few realise it was first developed in an academic paper written in Britain. The theory holds that a seemingly minor matter like broken windows in abandoned buildings leads directly to a more serious deterioration of neighbourhoods. Someone who wouldn’t normally throw a rock at an intact building is less reluctant to break a second window in a building that already has one broken.

In 1993 Rudi Giuliani was elected Mayor of New York. In just four years New York went from being the least safe to the safest of 200 major cities in the USA. He launched a crackdown on crime that produced results. Under his watch overall crime fell by 50% and murder by 67%, from 1,946 victims in 1993 to 642 in 2001. Police officer numbers shot up, so by 2001 New York City had more than 40,000 police officers.

The methods were more than just flooding the streets with police. Focus was given to the small-scale, so-called "victimless" quality of life crimes. Graffiti arrests trebled from1995 to 2001. People caught urinating in the streets, jumping a subway turnstile, playing loud music or drinking on the street were ticketed immediately. No shrugged shoulders. No excuses.

Mayor Giuliani offended liberals but the policies worked. The transport department had its maintenance departments working around the clock cleaning trains and buildings as fast as the graffiti vandals struck. In 1994, the first year of new management at City Hall, summonses for quality of life infringements jumped from 175,000 to 500,000.

Yet here in London anti-social behaviour orders are now seen as badges of honour.

Giuliani faced much worse problems than London but the trend in this city in recent months is similar.

I believe we need to preserve order in our public spaces. We need to stop people misusing our city and to stop street sleepers in central London.

Visitors and residents alike should know that London is a city where its beauty, like that of Venice and other great cities, can be appreciated without fear.

In my view the people of our great city need to insist upon a change in the way public officials think about urban policy making. We need to make quality of life crimes ? such as aggressive begging, graffiti, drinking in public and public urination ? the centrepiece of the approach, on the grounds that if you allow "victimless" crimes to flourish, it sends a signal that nobody is in charge. We need to believe that things can be done ? with the right political priorities and a proper focus on zero tolerance of all crime we can get there.