Opinion - Politics

Big cities are posing a major threat to the economy by ignoring minor crimes

Key Points
  • Strictly enforcing misdemeanor crime laws or restricting quality of life offenses isn't really about reducing more serious crimes. It's about saving and resurrecting economic opportunity, writes Jake Novak.
Police allow someone though the perimeter outside the Time Warner Center in New York City after a suspicious package was found inside CNN Headquarters, October 24, 2018.
Kevin Coombs | Reuters

Of all the brewing threats to America's continuing economic prosperity, one of the most serious comes straight out of the police blotter. No, it's not a rise in murders or other serious felonies. In fact it's the opposite: we're seeing a significant drop in arrests for minor offenses, or "quality of life" crimes.

And it could destroy the momentum for one of the country's most powerful economic growth engines.

The trend started to take hold in New York in 2016, when the city council passed a law easing stricter arrest rules initiated during Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration in the 1990s. But these moves have now spread to cities like Seattle and Austin. And as many critics of the homeless crisis in Los Angeles and San Francisco will tell you, police in those cities have not been used to permanently crack down on the growing tent cities in those areas.

Relaxing arrest policies for minor offenses such as graffiti, petty vandalism, public urination and public transportation fare-beating are often seen as compassionate or cost-cutting. After all, the argument goes, shouldn't the cops be spending their time focusing on more serious crimes? There are even a number of fair-minded arguments and studies that say easing up on minor misdemeanor arrests won't spark new crime waves or lead to much more serious felony crimes.

Those arguments miss the point. Strictly enforcing misdemeanor crime laws or restricting quality of life offenses isn't really about reducing more serious crimes. It's about saving and resurrecting economic opportunity.

Opponents of these quality of life crackdowns point to the fact that arrests for these crimes disproportionately hit African-Americans and other minorities. This is a legitimate concern too often dismissed by conservatives and law-and-order types. In fact, they sometimes come off as only being interested in cleaning up inner-city areas so they and their families can feel safer once in a while when they decide to go downtown to see a show or visit a trendy restaurant.

Yet the critics of these policies from the left and the right frequently miss the fact that petty crime enforcement benefits minority communities much more than anyone else. It's the black and Latino neighborhoods that are being vandalized by "broken window" crimes, not the more affluent parts of town or the richer suburbs. Yes, the people arrested for these crimes are likelier to be minorities, but the economic victims are even more likely to be minorities. In short, quality of life crime enforcement isn't a war on America's minorities. It's a war for them.

The transformation of New York in the 1990s from a high-crime, high-homicide-rate locale is really a story about the changes in several individual neighborhoods once deemed to be off-limits to decent people and businesses alike. Remember that even during the worst of times, Midtown Manhattan, Wall Street and the fancy apartment towers of Park and 5th Avenues were still always valuable and desirable addresses.

But when Harlem, Hell's Kitchen, Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, and Bedford-Stuyvesant started to become hot areas, it was clear the majority of the old fears had melted away. Each one of those neighborhoods had been written off for years as too dangerous to invest in despite their attractive proximity to the established money-making centers in Manhattan.

Quality of life and community policing transformed the image of those neighborhoods and helped prove to the business world that the old risks and fears weren't as serious anymore. New York's urban resurgence was not isolated in the 1990s. It was a major trend across the country and was a significant factor in that decade's economic boom.

Here's the kicker: the quality of life enforcement in those neighborhoods in the 1990s came mostly at the request of the local residents and remaining business owners. That's often overlooked by critics who portray minor crime enforcement in poorer neighborhoods as some kind of war on the people by the police.

By contrast, New York's economic and cultural decline began in the mid-1950s when then Mayor Robert Wagner relaxed police enforcement of quality of life crimes. As documented in the brilliant book "The Ungovernable City," by Vincent Cannato, Wagner's ill-advised withdrawal of police presence began on the city's subways which serviced many of the above-named neighborhoods. This ended up importing more economically devastating crime to those areas.

Reopening these areas to more economic opportunity starts with instilling a new confidence for entrepreneurs considering moving into these areas. Economic growth occurs when money is made where it hadn't been made before. There are still many crime-ridden areas blighted for years by fear and neglect in America. These places need more police attention and care, not less.

These facts shine a light on another cultural and economic misconception that may be at the root of these ill-advised leniency policies.

Many of us have been taught since birth that much of the reason for crime, terrorism, drug abuse, etc. is because of poverty. Poor people with few prospects are supposedly more likely to turn to crime to get by and as a way to lash out at their difficult lot in life.

But the truth is the exact opposite, and not just because we know that billionaires are often caught committing just as many serious crimes as poorer folks. Poor people are the most affected by crime because more crime occurs in their neighborhoods.

These Americans and their communities remain a largely untapped resource for the U.S. economy. It would be a shame to rob them of their rightful place in spurring more economic growth all because of misplaced and misapplied compassion.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.