Michael Flores on Wednesday was the most important person in Fresno.
You wouldn’t think so at first glance.
After all, Wednesday was the day that Police Chief Jerry Dyer publicly released the long-awaited body camera videos from the Dylan Noble shooting.
And Wednesday was the day that about 200 people marched a half-block to Downtown’s police headquarters in what was, judging by the protestors’ hand-held signs, Fresno’s second Black Lives Matter demonstration in less than a week.
In other words, plenty of folks in Fresno on Wednesday were – voluntarily or not – tied directly to the high-emotion, high-stakes zeitgeist sweeping across America in mid-2016.
Flores? He’s a nice guy, but, truth be told, he’s merely an administrative hearing officer quietly toiling away in a back office on the second floor of City Hall. How could he possibly be more important to Fresno’s future than all those people in front of (and behind) the TV cameras?
The reason is simple. Flores is at the heart of the key question facing our nation. Do we want social order, or do we not?
Without social order and personal restraint in a democracy as big as ours, we don’t have a nation. All we have is tribes – warring tribes.
I start not with recent events in Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas, dramatic as they are. I start with a story making the rounds of the Internet on Wednesday. One news site titled its story “Black Lives Matter Just Delivered Their 10 Point Manifesto, and This Is What They Want.”
No. 1 on the list: “End ‘broken windows’ policing, which aggressively polices minor crimes in an attempt to stop larger ones.”
As writer Tom Proctor noted, some Black Lives Matter activists say “broken windows” policing leads to cops unfairly targeting African-American men and women.
Later stories on the Internet stated that the 10-point statement was actually written by a group called “We The Protesters” of Ferguson, Missouri. The gist of such stories was that Black Lives Matter is a mass movement that, due to its decentralized structure, isn’t in a position to boil its demands down to only 10 essential points embraced by all those working under the BLM umbrella. “We The Protesters,” on the other hand, is not so constrained.
Of course, high-profile demands for vague notions of social justice are almost guaranteed to disorient and unnerve those in authority – hence the tactic’s value to some activists.
Still, the 10-point manifesto, regardless of its origin, is a good spot from which to take stock of where urban policy is headed in America.
“Broken windows” policing has been controversial in many parts of the nation for years, but especially since July 17, 2014 when Eric Garner, an African-American man, died after being put in a chokehold by police officers in New York City.
Garner allegedly had been illegally selling single cigarettes – “loosies” – on a public street. A seemingly small and victimless violation.
Whether it was the “loosies” or something else that caused police to confront Garner is still in some dispute. What’s not in dispute is the conviction among many activists, including many in the Black Lives Matter movement, that “broken windows” policing is a big reason for serious (even deadly) confrontations between minorities and police.
The thinking: All would be better served by ending “broken windows” policing in all its guises.
This thinking is prevalent in Fresno. Some say recent controversies involving law enforcement’s use of force is due to too much focus on seemingly small matters of innocuous behavior by civilians – too much “broken windows” policing.
George L. Kelling (a criminologist) and James Q. Wilson (a political scientist) published a long article titled simply “Broken Windows” in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
The piece begins with a look at a mid-1970s public safety initiative in New Jersey called the Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program. Twenty-eight cities were involved. A key piece of the program was getting cops out of patrol cars and walking neighborhood beats. The goal was reducing crime and improving residents’ sense of security.
A later study of the program showed that crime didn’t drop, yet residents felt better about their neighborhoods.
“But how can a neighborhood be ‘safer’ when the crime rate has not gone down – in fact, may have gone up?” Kelling/Wilson wrote. “Finding the answer requires first that we understand what most often frightens people in public places. Many citizens, of course, are primarily frightened by crime, especially crime involving a sudden, violent attack by a stranger. This risk is very real, in Newark as in many large cities. But we tend to overlook another source of fear – the fear of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.
“What foot-patrol officers did was to elevate, to the extent they could, the level of public order in these neighborhoods. Though the neighborhoods were predominantly black and the foot patrolmen were mostly white, this ‘order-maintenance’ function of the police was performed to the general satisfaction of both parties.”
Kelling and Wilson go on to state that, at the community level, disorder and crime are generally linked in a kind of developmental sequence.
“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” Kelling/Wilson wrote. “This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)”
(Parenthetical comment belongs to Kelling/Wilson.)
Kelling and Wilson wrote that vandalism can occur anywhere that communal barriers are lowered by actions that seem to signal indifference by neighborhood residents. They define communal barriers as the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility.
“We suggest that ‘untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls,” Kelling and Wilson wrote. “A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.”
At this point, Kelling and Wilson wrote, it’s not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur.
“But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly,” Kelling/Wilson wrote. “They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets they will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. ‘Don’t get involved.’ For some residents, this growing atomization will matter little, because the neighborhood is not their ‘home’ but ‘the place where they live.’ Their interests are elsewhere; they are cosmopolitans. But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments rather than worldly involvement; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet.”
Kelling and Wilson pulled no punches.
“Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion,” they wrote. “Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here … drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes’ customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently. That muggings will occur.”
This is only a hint of the powerful message from Kelling and Wilson. Much of their article deals with the same public safety controversies roiling today’s national debate.
I give you one last thought from the Kelling and Wilson article: “A strong and commendable desire to see that people are treated fairly makes us worry about allowing the police to rout persons who are undesirable by some vague or parochial standard. A growing and not-so-commendable utilitarianism leads us to doubt that any behavior that does not ‘hurt’ another person should be made illegal. And thus many of us who watch over the police are reluctant to allow them to perform, in the only way they can, a function that every neighborhood desperately wants them to perform.
“This wish to ‘decriminalize’ disreputable behavior that ‘harms no one’ – and thus remove the ultimate sanction the police can employ to maintain neighborhood order – is, we think, a mistake. Arresting a single drunk or single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.”
The“Broken Windows” article took America by storm. Its influence is felt to this day. That’s especially true in Fresno during the seven-and-a-half years of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s service.
Swearengin took office in January 2009 vowing to restore economic and civic vitality to inner-city Fresno. We’re talking about precisely the kinds of neighborhoods suffering from too many “broken windows” as described by Kelling and Wilson.
The Mayor’s first effort, begun only a few months after she was sworn in, was to bring in Southern California-based urban planner Stefano Polyzoides and essentially give him a free hand at redesigning Downtown Fresno and surrounding neighborhoods. Remember all those idealistic Polyzoides-led charrettes at a Downtown hotel? I sure do.
That didn’t last long. Polyzoides somehow alienated city officials and was sent packing. Then the Great Recession hit hard.
But the hope and idealism at City Hall weren’t crushed. They were simply transferred to the drafting of the 2035 general plan. The growth blueprint was completed in the middle of Swearengin’s second term.
“Under this Plan,” the document states, “the City will become a role model for Central Valley communities for growth management planning, regional cooperation, resilient urban development, economic vitality, revitalization of Downtown and established neighborhoods, resource efficiency, and environmental quality. The Plan also addresses a number of important community concerns, including:
- High concentrated poverty, high unemployment, and extreme disparities in quality-of-life circumstances and opportunities in different parts of the city;
- Neglected and disinvested established neighborhoods and Downtown Planning
- Poor air quality, and environmental and community health issues;
- Residential growth patterns that negatively impact natural resources and deplete strategic farmland; and
- Fiscal instability related to the city’s existing spread-out urban form and land use inefficiencies.”
The plan proudly says the “theme of resilience” runs throughout its hundreds of pages.
“There are five principles of resilience that guide the intent and demonstrate the interrelationships among Plan goals, objectives, and implementing policies. These principles serve as an overarching framework for a healthy and prosperous Fresno.
- Quality-of-Life and Basic Services in All Neighborhoods;
- A Prosperous City – Centered on a Vibrant Downtown;
- Ample Industrial and Employment Land Ready for Job Creation;
- Care for the Built and Natural Environment; and
- Fiscally Responsible and Sustainable Land Use Policies and Practices.”
Quality of Life. That’s the fundamental theme running through the pages of Kelling and Wilson, as well.
So, how was the Mayor to execute all this admirable (but perhaps dreamy) stuff? Well, there has been a new development code. And work has begun on restoring the Fulton Corridor from a pedestrian mall to a street with cars. And a new, more efficient bus system is coming to major streets.
But Swearengin’s key steps, two of them, involve public order.
First, she began rebuilding the ranks of the Police Department. Fresno at the end of this fiscal year (June 30, 2017) is slated to have 801 sworn officers. That compares to about 650 just a few years ago.
No need here to go into how these cops will be deployed. It’s sufficient to note that many officers will be focused on maintaining order where the basics of urban life occur – residential streets, schools, Fresno Area Express, key shopping centers.
Second, Swearengin invested heavily in City Hall’s other no-nonsense team dedicated to behavior modification: Code Enforcement.
“Broken Windows” might well be Code Enforcement’s middle name. Just about the whole point of a code enforcement officer is to ensure that the vacant house or commercial building down the street has every window intact (or appropriately covered), that the exterior paint is in good condition, that the roof is secure and aesthetically pleasing, that the yard is free of weeds and litter.
Laws were drafted and approved to give this code enforcement/social order campaign even more bite.
At the same time, Swearengin and the City Council, spurred mightily by the same progressive activists who expect every word of the new general plan to come true yesterday, began a highly publicized and emotional crusade to bring City Hall authority to the regulation of the interiors of residential rental units.
Too many Fresnans, it was said, were living in misery. Greedy slumlords and indifferent public officials were to blame. The thinking was that the city’s vast swaths of rundown housing lead to lives full of despair, which in turn leads (through no fault of those engaged in misbehavior) to the fundamental breakdown of neighborhood social order that has the Kellings and Wilsons of this world so worried.
In other words, we’re asking a lot of our police officers and our Code Enforcement Division.
And this is why – amid all the impassioned (and understandable) talk about Dylan Noble and Black Lives Matter, and all the public demonstrations with their chants of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” – the hard but obscure work of Hearing Officer Flores spotlights the contradiction at the heart of progressive protestors and the serious danger their demands to end “broken windows” policing poses to Fresno’s future.
I dropped by Flores’ office on Tuesday. He gave me copies of two decisions involving recent appeal hearings.
City law is tough on landlords who don’t maintain their vacant properties and buildings. The fines can quickly escalate into the $60,000 to $70,000 range. The landlords can appeal (to Flores or Administrative Hearing Officer Ed Johnson).
City officials are so serious about creating – and maintaining – social order in struggling neighborhoods that they recently passed a new law aimed at slumlords. The hearing officer at the end of a hearing that goes against the appellant must set a date a month away for a “progress” hearing. A wise landlord would be busy during that month. If not, Flores can double the fine and, if necessary, take the matter to Superior Court.
In theory, a landlord could be facing jail time.
That’s taking “broken windows” policing to a whole new level.
The first two “progress” hearings in Fresno history were held on Tuesday morning. Flores is a fast writer. He had his decisions in print by that afternoon.
The first, involving a property in the 5300 block of East Jensen Avenue, dealt with fundamental “broken windows” issues: junk, rubbish, tall weeds, a crumbling building.
The property owner, Joe Wu of Sunvista LLC, had gotten his act together.
“Appellant has corrected all outstanding violations on his property in a timely manner,” Flores wrote. “The ‘double fine’ provision … is not applicable in this case. Therefore, the fine assessed to Appellant will remain at $600.”
The second progress hearing went a different direction. This involved a house in the 1500 block of North Rowell Avenue. The owner, Lana D. Williams, had appealed his fine for various violations in May, but didn’t show up at his own hearing. Nor did Williams show up for Tuesday’s progress hearing.
Flores in his decision found that the property continued to be plagued with rubbish, junk, an inoperable vehicle and a damaged fence.
“It is clear in reviewing the testimony and pictures provided by the City at the progress hearing that Appellant has made no effort whatsoever to correct the violations still remaining on the Property,” Flores wrote. “The inoperable vehicle initially located on the street near the Property is now on the driveway, still inoperable. In comparing the pictures provided by the city …, there is no discernable improvement concerning the rubbish and junk contained on the Property. In fact, there seems to be more rubbish and junk spread out in an ever widening area of the Property.”
Flores wrote that Williams had given him “no choice” but to double the fines, from $1,400 to $2,800.
I was sitting outside Flores’ office Tuesday afternoon when Williams came in to personally plead his case. Flores told him it was too late, the hearing had been that morning. Williams was most unhappy. I could hear his raised voice through a closed door.
What do you want, Fresno?
If you want a city where individual appetites reign supreme, where the sovereign people insist that duly constituted authority gives everyone a pass on all types of “broken windows” behavior, then fine. It’s a democracy. You get what you deserve.
But kiss goodbye all that utopian chatter in the 2035 general plan and those hard-won code enforcement laws. No child will be well served if her toilet flushes but she’s forced to go outside to a neighborhood in utter chaos.
If you want a city of ordered liberty for all and the incomparable blessings this produces, then fine.
But you’ve got to kiss goodbye all this contempt for “broken windows” policing and the dedicated men and women (your neighbors!) who enforce the people’s rules.
Having trouble deciding which kind of Fresno you want? I suggest you spend less time demonstrating in front of Police Headquarters and more time in the City Hall conference room where Flores holds his code enforcement appeal hearings.
You will get an unforgettable lesson on the difficulty of convincing some Fresnans to pursue their own best interests.
Flores on Wednesday was preparing for another progress hearing.