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Smashed windows

Mark Milke: BC crime is headed in the wrong direction—and it starts with the attitudes and policies of those in charge.

Over the past several years, a 75-year-old friend in Kelowna had his truck broken into, his supposedly secure storage facility unit cracked open with thousands of dollars of tools stolen, and his bike snatched.

In each instance, he took the proper precautions (including locks) but it made no difference. The police told him to file reports but left him with little hope; property crime is so common that police cannot realistically hope to investigate much of it.

Why are the police impotent on property crime? It’s not their fault. They need the robust support of politicians, prosecutors, and judges. That has become increasingly unlikely because a bias has grown against taking property crime seriously among that class. Instead, we are back to the worst assumptions of the 1960s and 1970s, where politicians, academics, and others dismiss concerns about crime with excuses about “root causes.”

One of those is that until poverty and mental illness are somehow abolished— which is assumed to be the root causes of crime and in some minds even justifies it— politicians and others are increasingly telling citizens to just live with it.

The result is that few other factors are then considered as possible causes of crime: Culture as one example; or greed combined with laziness where rather than save up to buy things, it’s easier to snatch it; or envy, where stealing property is justified by pointing to the goods or luxuries others have and well, “why shouldn’t I also have that?”

Victoria imitates 1980s New York City and BC imitates modern-day California

For those who think I exaggerate, ponder some recent developments and statements. Last September, CTV News reported on the case of downtown Victoria’s Budget Break and Muffler.

The owner, Ryan Burghardt, said a “catch-and-release” approach to property crime meant his business was suffering from the same people breaking into his cars, which he knew from video surveillance. Burghardt told CTV that in one 45-day period, four catalytic converters were stolen, at a cost of $2,000 per vehicle. And there was random kicking of vehicles and breaking of mirrors, which were an additional cost to his business.

When Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps wrote to BC Attorney General David Eby to ask if there wasn’t some better policy than catch-and-release, he wrote back to offer up the cliched “root cause” argument: “We have an initiative called 'complex care' to recognize that the courts and the prisons are not going to be taking people in the same way they did previously," Eby, was quoted as saying.

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak was quoted in the same story as noting that a core reason for spiking crime is federal legislation from 2019 (Bill C-75). That law forces police to release people quickly unless someone’s life was/is threatened by the arrested person.

It’s not just Victoria. Vancouver’ s downtown has the same issues, including rampant vandalism and smash-and-grab crimes. This has become so bad that one merchant told Business in Vancouver that he could no longer obtain insurance for his contents.

British Columbia thus now imitates California where property theft under US $950 has been effectively decriminalized and made a misdemeanour. The result is that even major chain stores are shoplifted by gangs and there is little they or anyone else can do about it, including police. Walgreens just closed five stores in the San Francisco area due to organized crime’s “shoplifters” targeting its stores.

History repeats itself on a lax approach to crime

This approach to crime has been tried before. American cities started to break down in the 1960s due to such theories. They became cesspools of property and other crime well into the 1990s until both demographic shifts (fewer young men as a proportion of the population) and politicians and police chiefs took crime more seriously and began to deliberately push back.

A famous example of the pushback that occurred though starting in the early 1990s was the “broken windows” crime theory pushed by then New York police commissioner William Bratton.

Their approach originated in a 1982 theory from social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, popularized in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article. Their basic argument was that when police and politicians overlook “minor” crimes such as graffiti, vandalism, or low-level property crime, a sense of chaos and opportunity for more crime is created on streets.

The literal or figurative broken window sends a message that no one cares, and that more crime (including major crime) will be the natural result. Instead, Bratton began enforcing the laws against petty crime and property crime. After policy and legal reforms, the justice system more generally began to hand out longer prison sentences to repeat offenders.

Busting the myth crime is always linked to incomes

There has been plenty of debate since about how much of the 1990s and beyond reduction in crime rates was due to demographic shifts or policy based on fixing broken windows. As with nature-nurture arguments the correct answer is probably “both.”

A useful recent guide here is Barry Latzer, a former professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York. Latzer has written five books and a plethora of scholarly work on the causes of crime, but two books, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, and The Roots of Violent Crime in America—From the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, are accessible to the average reader. Both books also help dispel the myth that crime always has economic antecedents, i.e., poverty.

As one example, Latzer points to how a culture of crime in the American South in the 19th and (early) 20th centuries was actually imported by immigrants from an immigrant group known as the Scotch-Irish. Both cohorts were historically violent back home and both brought that culture of violence to America. Why the violence? As one example, Scots from the border region with England were historically involved in dynastic wars between the two nations and also in vicious clan rivalries. (The later clan rivalries in the Appalachian region in the American South were a continuation of the same, notes Latzer.)

As for poverty, violent Southern whites who committed violent crimes came from all classes. They were driven in part by an “honour” culture where insults were to repaid with fists, knives and guns; it was where southern gun duels originated.

Despite the work of Wilson and now Latzer, we are living through a repeat experiment where politicians, theorists and some law enforcement officials believe that nothing can or even should be done about “minor” crimes such as stealing the property of others. They wish to blame much on assumed “structural” causes and believe it would be wrong to incarcerate those charged with theft or, even when convicted, to offer much more than a revolving door even then.

Make the consequences of stealing cheap or even beneficial and some people will do just that. It can also combine with entitled attitudes where one is encouraged by politicians, along with some social theorists and selected prosecutors and justices to think one is a victim and thus entitled to other people’s “stuff.”

Property crime and other crimes makes our cities less livable, whether one is in San Francisco, Vancouver, or Victoria, or Kelowna. And it means muffler shop owners and 75-year-olds—and many other innocent citizens—pay the price for such recycled theorizing based on failed policies already tried decades ago.

Mark Milke is president of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy, a new think tank set for launch later this year.  His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.