10 Reader Views on Crime in Their Neighborhoods

“Statistically, I should be more afraid of the men in my life than the men in the street.”

Black-and-white photo of police tape across a crime scene with numbered evidence markers
Liu Guanguan / China News Service / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, “How do you perceive crime in your neighborhood? How about homelessness? Disorder? What’s your relationship to these things? How much do you think about them? How, if at all, do they affect where you live or the political candidates you support?”

The responses afford fascinating glimpses into different communities and individual psychologies.

Jay lives in San Francisco:

I strongly believe that crime, homelessness, graffiti, and excessive trash are all conflated, and that a large increase in any one of these areas without a decrease in others allows for the perception of “rot” to take hold. In San Francisco, where I’ve lived since 1989, all four areas are much more visible and omnipresent than ever. The piles of trash blowing down neighborhood streets (my own street very much included) and the uncleaned graffiti on street signs and local businesses have as much to do with the backlash against progressivism as any Walgreens shoplifter and open-air drug market in Civic Center or the Tenderloin (which are places most San Franciscans rarely go and only read about).

With recent successful school-board and D.A. recalls, I’m fairly certain that without a highly visible effort to stop “broken windows” crimes (tagging, littering, literal breaking of windows), the next target will be our mayor, London Breed, as ultimately the buck stops with her. I’m certainly not alone in my hope that she succeeds in matching her rhetoric with action.

Chris is unhappy with the reform district attorney that he helped elect in Los Angeles County:

I didn’t know a lot about George Gascón when I voted for him, but the platform he ran on was pretty sensible—holding police accountable when they violate citizens’ rights, implementing a risk-based bail system, and making rehabilitation rather than retribution the goal of enforcement for petty crimes and drug use. That’s not what we got (or, if it is what we got, it’s been completely overshadowed by his higher-profile actions).

Eliminating cash bail should not prevent those accused of committing a series of highly publicized follow-home robberies (and murders) from being detained until their trial. Gascón may not be wrong that we’ve over-criminalized some communities, but it’s intellectually dishonest to apply that label to Hannah Tubbs or the five men [charged with killing] Julian Andrade. In all of these cases, the interests of justice and public safety are not served by attempting to rehabilitate these individuals. Taking them off the streets, permanently if possible, would have been a more effective way to prevent them from reoffending.

It’s possible these highly publicized cases are outliers, but the self-righteous way Gascón and [San Francisco District Attorney Chesa] Boudin have responded to criticism leads me to believe otherwise. I received a copy of the petition to recall Gascón. The argument for why he should be recalled was a moving plea for justice by the mother of Julian Andrade. One might expect Gascón’s rebuttal to express his empathy for her anguish, then to explain why he believes that his policies will prevent others from having to suffer. Instead, he dismissed the recall effort as a Trumpist conspiracy. That, alone, was sufficient reason for me to sign the petition.

Jaleelah believes that homeless people where she lives in Toronto are feared and blamed in irrational ways:

I am a young woman. When I tell people that I frequently go for walks at night in the city, they often react with shock or concern. People are curious as to why I am not afraid of being followed home or sexually assaulted by a homeless person or drug user. I respond that, statistically, I should be more afraid of the men in my life than the men in the street.

Anti-homeless and anti-crime advocates often cite women’s safety as a prime reason to keep “dangerous people” off the streets. This rhetoric is often effective—after all, everyone agrees that women are a vulnerable group and that they deserve to feel safe in their cities. But this rhetoric is effective only because the general population buys into gross misrepresentations of the dangers women face.

For example, many women I interact with are afraid to walk alone in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city. Broken windows and crumbling apartment buildings are common. As such, women are afraid of being assaulted or robbed. These women are likely unaware that the neighborhood sports relatively low rates of all types of crime. The same women are eager to attend frat parties, where they are orders of magnitude more likely to be sexually assaulted.

I am upset that women are lied to about their safety. If women were reminded from a young age to be suspicious of their male friends and family members, perhaps at least a few more sexual crimes could be prevented. Instead, they are taught that homeless and criminal-looking men on the streets are the ones they should avoid.

This isn’t to say I am a complete noninterventionist when it comes to homelessness. If the large majority of people decide that homeless camps in parks are hindering their ability to use public spaces, the people in the camps should be moved to adequate city-run housing. The issue is that Toronto, in particular, is not so good at the “adequate” part. Despite the fact that thousands of units sit empty in the city’s premium condo buildings, public housing is stretched thin. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many residents of overcrowded shelters moved to the city’s parks. Instead of seizing or building new units for them, the city set up hundreds of bunk beds in a couple of gymnasium-like spaces. These beds were not socially distanced, and the city refused to elaborate on the precautions it was taking against COVID except to insist that the beds were safe. I think that homeless people have the right to refuse to live in unsafe conditions. But when the park residents refused to move to the communal-living centers, city-dwellers’ ire was mostly directed at the homeless.

Matt gives a view from “a rapidly gentrifying part of Dallas”:

In the 1960s and 1970s it was ground zero for “white flight”: middle-class homes on nice lots with trees only 10 minutes from downtown. When we moved in, many homes still had window bars from a rougher time. Perusing the Nextdoor app now, you’ll see a smattering of porch pirates and an occasional car break-in, but the crimes mentioned are fairly petty.

My partner works in the psychiatric ER at the large public hospital here. Occasionally he ducks down driving by street people he recognizes as we drive around the city. While Dallas may not be as bad as San Francisco or L.A., the mental-health system is broken. Eighty percent of the people he sees are in some form of drug-induced psychosis or working the system to get a meal or a break from the heat. He sees the same people over and over. I hate the refrain that homelessness is caused by high housing prices. The homelessness that we see on street corners and under bridges is addiction and mental health. Do high housing costs cause mental strife and push people toward the edge? Absolutely. Our perception of urban blight isn’t a result of property values, but the scourge of addiction.

My city has seen an increase in crime, as most have. But, the crimes in question are isolated to areas where people are on the edge. The cheapest apartments. The poorest parts of the city. As long as the crimes stay there, many people continue to think it’s not happening to them. Only in nightlife centers or shopping districts does it make headlines. We vacillate between hard/soft-on-crime D.A.s depending on the political moods. I’m a broken-windows-policing enthusiast. My issue, littering. A person who throws garbage out of their car cannot value the life or dignity of another person. We cannot force people into being better people, but we can make and enforce rules of behavior.

Bekke describes what she has witnessed working with the homeless:

Living in a small-ish city in AZ, I might have a different perspective than those in larger cities. There is virtually no crime in my neighborhood, but the downtown area has its share—mostly drunk and disorderly, drug-related and domestic violence, some burglaries. Very few involve the homeless; they don’t have the transportation and are often more focused on surviving. We have a Quality of Life court with a compassionate judge who remands folks to counseling and/or the homeless shelter, usually providing bus tickets. The police clear encampments when they receive complaints from property owners.

I volunteer at the homeless shelter; we provide meals, laundry, showers, and internet. Our most valuable asset is the caseworker—we have many well-qualified ones, a number of whom have been homeless. We also have a dedicated group of longtime volunteers.

Our city council passed a ban on providing meals to the homeless in the parks, mainly targeting churches, unless they had permits and insurance. I wouldn’t vote for politicians who promise a total crackdown, that is inhumane and impossible, but I would certainly support those who promoted workable solutions—counseling, navigation centers, low-cost housing with individual units. I’m hoping to buy a house as a rental to provide transitional housing to select individuals, those who demonstrate responsibility and a desire to get off the streets. The homeless are people, too, many of whom have fallen on very bad luck (house fires, catastrophic medical issues); they just need a hand up. Some have addiction problems and some prefer the lifestyle, but far from all of them.

John can visit cities more comfortably than his loved ones, sympathizes with their aversions to homelessness and disorder, and wishes the politics of the subject were more grounded in empirical facts:

Personally, I’m not worried about crime or homelessness. I’m 6’1’, in pretty good shape, and I’m pretty strong and have a concealed-carry permit. I’m also generally friendly, and I avoid obvious high-risk places. So I’m only slightly kidding when I say that the infamous line from Breaking Bad applies to me a bit:  “I’m not in danger; I am the danger.”  

I went to Portland and Seattle as a young adult decades ago, and I fell in love with those places. But the homeless people, who very often are involved in criminal activities, are destroying those places. My in-laws will not go to either of those downtowns. And those homeless people aren’t scared of big, angry-looking people; they have the upper hand, insofar as they have little to lose. I don’t want to be heartless; we’ve done a very bad job providing either care or opportunity for our homeless population. But there is a real cost to society of letting people camp on city sidewalks and use the street as a bathroom. While I would sometimes be willing to pay the price to partake in activities in big cities, my family members don’t want to join me. I don’t really blame them.

I’ve been thinking about the politics of this. I’m just freaking tired of empty sloganeering. “I’m a law-and-order candidate.” Okay, prove it. I was daydreaming of creating a kind of dashboard, based on actual facts, to judge the real impact politicians are having. Right now, all they have to do is signal to their tribe and they get elected. I read that the reality of the San Francisco D.A. whom voters just canned wasn’t all that different. Clearance rates, felony convictions, etc., more or less stayed the same. Could such data be captured for each D.A., compared with other D.A.s? Would it matter?

If I win the lottery, I may try to create it.

Luciano describes what’s happening in his corner of New York City:

Order and disorder are very much on the minds of people in the neighborhood where I work in the Bronx. Pelham Bay was a neighborhood of Irish and Italian families that has shifted to a mix of Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, Albanian, and other Eastern Europeans along with the aforementioned Italians and Irish. The constant scuttlebutt is “The neighborhood is changing,” but it’s left up to your own devices as to how it is changing. If I were to put my finger on it, the perceived change is the reactions and attitudes toward institutions of order, such as the government and especially the police. Residents see increases in both petty crime (break-ins, vandalism, hit-and-run accidents, and theft of catalytic converters) and major crimes (there were two armed holdups at local bodegas in the past two months). This increase is indicative to them of the following: a change in government attitudes toward community concerns (“The police don’t care” is the rallying cry) and a shifting attitude toward authority (largely attributed to “new” people moving in—often code for people from the inner-city South Bronx).    

This, in turn, has me thinking about the relationship between social change and order. A community that has had constant conflict with the police will see the government as the enemy, since it is the only relationship they know. Those communities that have enjoyed a positive relationship with the police are often blind to societal pressures that drive anti-police resentment. The police are often their family and neighbors, so a community like Pelham Bay sees an increase in crime with dismay, but scarcely wants to look at why it is happening. They cannot see the underlying issues (homelessness, lack of opportunity, lack of educational equity, etc.) that may contribute to an adversarial relationship.

Does societal change drive institutional authority, or the other way around? I’ve been of the mindset that social progress cannot happen in a power vacuum. People, in the short run, need order for their everyday lives. If they see disorder in their faces every day, they will not focus on the underlying issues, but rather the mugging or carjacking happening on their block. The real way to drive change is to analyze which levers of society can be managed or reformed so that order becomes an organic part of a community, rather than an imposition. Police need a strong presence as a visible community actor, but along with that should come targeted investment in educational quality, after-school programs, community centers, job placement, affordable housing options, and other social investment that builds community interdependence so that order and civility become a habit of mind rather than a patrol car to be avoided. People want to be safe. They want to succeed. Maybe thinking this way will lead to that.

David feels safe but bothered by disorder:

I am fortunate to live in a part of NYC where neither crime nor homelessness is readily evident. The disorder I experience seems trivial, but yet it bothers me. Bicyclists, sometimes motorized, are brazen about ignoring red lights and ignoring the clear signs in the park about not cycling on the pedestrian paths. I started challenging the bicyclists in the park to obey the signs and dismount, but my “batting average” of success was so bad that I stopped.

Tony is even more unsettled by disorder:

I live in a nice apartment in downtown St. Paul, but not a day goes by when I don’t hear people or even just one person somewhere out on the street yelling at the top of their lungs about something (and not a week goes by when someone in my allegedly luxury apartment building doesn’t yell and slam doors). I work from home and leave my apartment 1–2 times a week, rarely more. This keeps me from experiencing much crime (notwithstanding my recently stolen bike). I also don’t see many homeless people and have not yet been approached by one in the five months that I’ve lived here. St. Paul, of course, is a smaller metropolitan area than where the major crime increases are occurring.

I think about these things only when they’re happening, but it does lead me to conclude that I’d like to move out of the city at some point when it’s convenient and when I’m not giving up the nice amenities here. As a middle-aged white man who grew up in the suburbs, the kind of disorder you’re referring to makes me uncomfortable, if I’m being honest. People screaming at each other is not itself a crime, I suppose, but it often leads to physical violence, and it’s terribly unsettling. I am much less bothered by homeless people who just mumble to themselves, which I saw a lot of when I lived in California for a few years. The downside is that I hate the suburbs as well because they tend to be conservative (at least the suburbs I can afford) and are riddled with nothing but chain stores. So, unless I have enough money one day to have my cake and eat it too, it’s a trade-off.

None of this affects my choice of political candidates. The Republican Party has become so fascist over the last five years that I will continue to support Democrats across the board, even if they are out of touch with very large swaths of voters. Democrats at least try to get to the root problems and social conditions that give rise to crime, homelessness, and disorder.

Eric begins by reflecting on crime and why disorder bothers him more in the places he has lived:

My last 15 years of city life have been in areas with very different crime problems. When I lived on a street with lots of bars, there was a lot of drunken-disorderly stuff, and a few bar fights spilling into the street, but most people consider it a really nice neighborhood with expensive homes and safe streets where kids ride their bikes to school. But the “crime rate” (calculated as the number of criminal incidents reported) was higher in that “nice” neighborhood than in my current neighborhood, where there are relatively few drunken-disorderly incidents but considerably more car break-ins and burglaries. Still, most people consider my current area to be a bit “hood,” but would quickly add that it’s “cleaning up.” Or, perhaps, “gentrifying.” I’m always skeptical of that term, though.

The point is that I didn’t feel unsafe in my old neighborhood and I don’t feel unsafe in my new one, despite constant attempts by Nextdoor and Ring to make me feel that way. I think I’m not worried, despite living in an “urban hellhole,” as my rural family would call it, because I know that nationwide and citywide crime rates have been steadily decreasing over the years, but we are made more aware of what little crime there is. Simple math shows me that things are usually pretty good for most of us, crime-wise.

Disorder and homelessness are more concerning to me. I’m pretty OCD, so seeing things in disarray, disorganized, run-down—that bothers me. I hate broken windows, and I do think that having a cluttered or disorderly space will have some negative impact on whoever lives there, but I’m not convinced by broken-windows policing. I can’t help but think that we just need to get out there and fix broken shit, not try to arrest anybody who breaks a window.

He goes on to reflect on chronic homelessness fueled by mental disorders or drug addiction and how to address it:

When you see that same guy every week, you can bet he’s struggling with something deeper. Most people feel conflicted about what to do. One part of us wants to give a little cash or food, but worries that it’ll be squandered on drugs. Another part pushes back, saying that we shouldn’t be so patronizing, because people should be able to make their own choices, including mistakes. A third part just wants to ignore the person. A fourth part wants to look them in the eyes, ask how they’re doing, and try to treat them with dignity, even if we can’t or won’t give anything else.

This last little voice asks why we aren’t treating this as an urgent, in-your-face problem. I mean, there’s a human being, in your community, who doesn’t have a roof over his head! I remember Louis C.K. telling a joke about a relative who comes to visit him in the city and sees a homeless person. He steps over the homeless guy like nothing’s happening, and the relative immediately stops and asks what’s wrong, how can she help, and Louis C.K. reacts like most of us, by treating her like she’s being crazy for thinking she can help. The joke, of course, is that we’re the crazy ones.

I’ve attended community meetings on the homeless, seminars run by local organizations training on how to best help, and engaged on a person-to-person level. The takeaway appears to be that, if you see a homeless person, and you think it’s safe to do so, then you should try to talk to them, ask what they need, and see if a shelter can meet those needs. If that’s not working, you could slowly befriend them and try to use your network to help them through the struggles they’re dealing with. But many people worry that, if they actually try to help, then the homeless person is going to pull a Jean Valjean and steal their forks while they’re sleeping. Of course, that story continues beyond the betrayal of the kindness. The subsequent forgiveness propels Valjean onto a life of good deeds and righteousness. So maybe that’s what’s required of us, but we’re unwilling to accept the weight and risk. I think that’s what irks me so much about homelessness. And disorder. The feeling that I could do something about it, but I’m just not.

He concludes by discussing what all this means for his politics:

I’m progressive libertarian (government shouldn’t control our bodies or choices and should never be permitted to kill us, but government can impose taxes to pay for collective goods like military, police, roads, etc.), so I believe that government should be involved in efforts to address crime, disorder, and homelessness, but I don’t necessarily think that always means police should be the ones handling it. So, if I hear a politician using “tough on crime” language, I assume that they haven’t thought much about how to solve the problems, or that they assume their voters haven’t thought much about it, which means the politician won’t be expected to actually do anything about it once elected. This means I tend to like politicians who talk about wonky stuff surrounding these issues. Even if I don’t agree with the proposed solution, at least I know there’s a thoughtful person who’d be responsible for trying to solve the issues, and I assume this person is more likely to change tactics in response to new information, to try to work through the issues.

In Atlanta, we saw increases in lots of different crimes in 2020, but we also saw police-brutality protests. I’m an immigration attorney and we handle criminal defense, deportation/removal defense, and VAWA [Violence Against Woman Act] issues, so I’ve seen the intersection of some of these things from both sides, working with police and defending against them. I have heard fellow ATLiens arguing that then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wasn’t doing enough to “back the blue,” as well as people who argued that she was putting too much into our “Cop City” plans to increase police training as opposed to increasing other community measures. But I liked Mayor Keisha (despite having not voted for her), because she earned my trust by getting out there, getting her hands dirty, and trying to talk to people from all sides and work out solutions. She recognized that police officers aren’t a cure-all, but that “defund the police” isn’t either. So, even if she got some things wrong, she was in there trying, and wasn’t just parroting empty slogans.

Something I wish we would reform is qualified immunity. This is the type of thing that most people don’t think about until it happens to them or to a loved one, but once it does, the entire community loses faith in the system. That’s dangerous. When a cop cracks your friend’s skull, or robs you, and suffers no consequences, you don’t care about the doctrine of “qualified immunity.” What happens is that you stop calling the police. You stop feeling the need to participate in the society that not only funds, but protects, the uniformed authoritarian who commits crimes against you with impunity. This destroys communities from within. Qualified immunity is death by a thousand cuts, and a far more insidious danger than most politicians realize. When enough people suffer abuse at the hands of the state, radical change appears to be the only recourse. We’ll throw the baby out with the bathwater, which will be terrible, since, despite its flaws, America is still an amazing place to live, if only it wouldn’t get in its own way.

As always, thanks for all your notes and see you later this week.

P.S. Today in The Atlantic, I argue that professors need the power to fire diversity bureaucrats. Read the article.