Expert Commentary

Postindustrial cities and explanations of order‑maintenance policing

2013 study from the University of Kansas on the law enforcement practices of "new economy" cities that promote "creative class" pursuits and cultural tourism.

For many people, concepts like “the new economy” and “the creative class” can have a nice glow to them, and some research supports that impression: A 2012 study in the Journal of Economic Geography found that jobs requiring analytic and social-intelligence skills paid more than those that didn’t. Workers in such fields were also 2% less likely to be unemployed during the Great Recession. And the benefits weren’t just personal: The industries in which they work benefit from “clustering” and so tend to concentrate in larger, denser metropolitan areas. This helped keep such cities’ overall unemployment rates relatively low and also boosted real-estate values. New residents’ demands for cultural amenities and other “soft infrastructure” can in turn produce additional growth.

But the emergence of the creative class and the growing attractiveness of central cities isn’t all just good jobs and bright lights. Income inequality continues to rise in the United States as the job market polarization grows and lower-tier wages stagnate; the “digital divide” threatens to further isolate poorer residents without computer skills. Gentrification is also a growing concern, with lower-income residents fearful of rising living costs and the changes that new residents can bring. A 2010 study by the Census Bureau and NYU found that residents who own their homes — and thus should be able to stay — tend to leave gentrifying neighborhoods at higher rates than those who rent.

But as certain cities promote a more “upscale” image, how might that affect dynamics of racial diversity? Troubled municipalities tend to use law-enforcement tactics that emphasize crime control, including “hot spots” policing strategies. Higher-income, post-industrial cities can favor order-maintenance strategies, often through business improvement districts. Rather than targeting crime, they emphasize social control and the prosecution of relatively minor offenses — the “broken windows” so famously described by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982. While good in theory, such strategies can end up reinforcing rather than reducing inequality, ensuring that “troublemakers” — however they may be defined — are sent on their way. A 2009 study in the journal Criminology analyzes survey data from more than 760 black adolescents in 73 communities, and found that 26% of those surveyed said they had experienced racial discrimination by law enforcement in the past year — and it was more likely in predominantly white neighborhoods.

A 2013 study in Urban Affairs Review, “The Postindustrial City Thesis and Rival Explanations of Heightened Order Maintenance Policing,” examines the relationship between an area’s economy and its policing style. The author, Elaine B. Sharpe of the University of Kansas, looks at 180 cities with a population of 100,000 or more; she analyzes arrest rates and charges, governing institutions, policing demands and constraints, and variables representing the “racial threat” thesis — that the increased presence of minorities can trigger intolerance and greater attempts at social control.

The study’s findings include:

  • There is a strong relationship between the degree to which a city’s economy is postindustrial and oriented toward the creative class and the emphasis on social-control policing: A 10-percentage-point increase in postindustrial employment was shown to result in a 4.6- to 4.8-percentage-point increase in the share of order-maintenance arrests. “[This is] a substantively nontrivial impact given that the average city devotes about 22% of its arrests to order maintenance.” This result was obtained after controlling for the percentage 18- to 24-year-olds, whose presence is often elevated in cities with large, research universities.
  • The greater the share of 18- to 24-year-olds in the population, the greater the emphasis on social control. “Indeed, many order maintenance offenses are quintessentially linked to youth (e.g., graffiti, curfew and loitering violations, runaways). Whether or not their activities constitute a threat to the image-creation and sanitization of space for new economy enterprises, young people disproportionately attract the social control efforts of the police by virtue of their featured presence in so many order maintenance offenses.”
  • There was no evidence found that as black residents’ share of a city’s population begins to rival that of a white majority, that order-maintenance arrests rise as well. “If anything, the negative (albeit insignificant) coefficients for the ‘proportion black’ variable hint at the unexpected finding that greater emphasis on order maintenance is linked with smaller black populations.”
  • High rates of violent crime deter significant investments in order-maintenance policing, while the level of property crime does not. This is “an interesting result given that the number of violent crimes in any city is absolutely dwarfed by the number of property crimes [and] suggests a slightly more nuanced interpretation of the impact of crime on order-maintenance policing than is envisioned by a simplistic view of crime as a competing demand on police officers’ time.”
  • While previous research has largely focused on global cities such as Seattle, “the phenomenon at issue is relevant for midsized cities as well. Many of these cities have pursued cultural strategies of urban development that have maneuvered their economies into substantial reliance on new economy sectors,” and their policing strategies have changed in tandem.

“The fact that cities with postindustrial economies emphasize order-maintenance policing derives much of its interest value from the fact that order maintenance involves elements of social control in situations involving noncriminal activity and relatively minor offenses,” the author states. “Individuals on the periphery of society are caught in a net of police attention that has widened because of the local state’s need to convey an image of high quality of life to appeal to the creative classes and cultural tourism.”

The author cautions that the study’s findings are based on city-level analysis, not neighborhood level, and that finer-grained research could find more nuanced results. For example, that order-maintenance policing could be triggered “only if it occurs in the city center or near trendy areas for creative class or cultural tourist consumption, and especially if the race and class characteristics of those doing the begging make it easier to dub it ‘aggressive’ panhandling.”

Keywords: order maintenance policing, crime, law, stop and frisk, broken windows, gentrification, creative class, New York City, Bill Bratton, business improvement district (BID), policing

About The Author