Conflict Intervention as Crime Prevention

Report Author

Justin R. Corbett

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Table of Contents

Institutional Impact – Public Housing

Evidence-Based Impact and Importance

Public housing developments can be difficult, distrustful,252 demanding environments for law enforcement and the service providers operating within their physically and socially labyrinthine confines. These developments often carry the strain of low collective 254efficacy253 and concentrated disadvantage, resulting in residents’ long-term255 exposures to elevated crime rates,256 poor states of mental and somatic health,257 and social stenocentrism.258 This injurious exposure has measurable and malignant consequences for community well-being and residents’ overall quality of life259 and, insultingly, increases their susceptibility to criminal activity and victimization.260

Practically, the neighboring style inspired by a public, vertical housing context negatively influences the tenor and trajectory of the conflicts that course its corridors.261 The blurry boundaries and casual incursions of thinly insulated private space,262 the unavoidability263 and suspicion264 of common spaces, and an enveloping, materially constrained ethnology265 all conspire to move conflict toward more dark and destructive ends than would reliably occur in the context of alternative housing ecologies.

System wide, public housing neighbor conflicts can command 20% to 40% of housing managers’ time.266 They can also involve twice the level (66%) of abuse, harassment, and threatening behavior than reported in conflicts occurring in other housing environments.267 Where utilized,268 mediation has been an effective mechanism to resolve these conflicts and prevent their probable criminality.269

NYC Performance and Potential

NYCHA is the nation’s largest public housing authority.270 The excessive concentration of crime in some of its developments,271 as well as various troublesome profiles272 and practices273 place these areas in significant need of services capable of strengthening police-community relations and proactively and restoratively engaging those susceptible to crime.

Through their Catchment Area services directed at MAP15 developments, service providers are beginning to address the particularly complicated needs of these areas. Assaults, intimidation, vandalism, and other criminal conduct do not occur in a vacuum. They are informed by the observed behaviors of trusted others and motivated by unmet needs and underlying interests. By engaging development residents not just through the criminal symptoms they exhibit, but also through the individual, familial, social, and communal causes that inform those displays, service provider interventions become more than mere temporary, topical relief, but lasting, systemic change.

As providers continue to develop their Catchment Area programming, the full impact of these efforts will slowly focalize. Already, however, this type of long-term, systemic change is impressively demonstrated by RHPP’s efforts to deeply embed its services in the Red Hook development through its strategy of holistic community engagement, its partnerships drawing upon deep personal and institutional buy-in, its use of offender support and accountability circles, and its tie-in with personalizable wrap-around services. More than a simple diversion, this type of engagement of at-risk residents in the City’s most challenging housing developments is key to improving residents’ quality of life, as well as their resistance and resiliency to area crime.

Figure 27. Service Providers’ Assigned Catchment Areas

Through Catchment Area programming, service providers are contributing to a citywide effort to reduce crime and improve public safety in select public housing developments. This visualization identifies those developments for which mediative and restorative interventions were solicited and secured as part of that effort.


252. Public housing residents are almost three times less trusting of other people than are homeowners (Donoghue, J., Tranter, B., 2012).

253. Within public housing contexts specifically, those who hold low perceptions of local collective efficacy reported high rates of victimization in the forms of public harassment, property crime, IPV, and stranger and acquaintance violence (Dekeseredy, W.S., Alvi, S., Tomaszewski, E.A., 2003).

254. The notion of concentrated disadvantage has received significant attention from criminologists, sociologists, and policymakers alike. One technical definition of what qualifies a neighborhood as demonstrating concentrated disadvantage is its placement at least one standard deviation above the national mean on the following indicators: “proportion of teenagers dropping out of high school, proportion of women heading a family, proportion of households on public assistance, and proportion of prime-age and able-bodied men not in the labor force” (Jargowsky, P.A., Sawhill, I.V., 2006).

255. The average tenure of NYCHA residents, for example, is between 15 to 23 years (16 years for younger residents, 23 years for middle-aged residents, and 15 years for elderly residents; Bahchieva, R., Hosier, A., 2001). Interestingly, longer tenancy tenures have been associated with lower levels of interpersonal trust (Donoghue, J., Tranter, B., 2012), which could reasonably increase the frequency and intensity of inter- resident conflicts.

256. For a review of the prevailing social and physical mechanisms hypothesized to account for this connection between public housing and high rates of crime, see: Lens, M.C. (2013).

257. Brisson, D. (2015).

258. Evidence suggests the relative narrowness of public housing residents’ social networks (i.e. their socially stenocentric nature) can increase the probability of co-local victim-offender dyads, thereby decreasing the motility of crime and preferencing its concentration among known or easily knowable local nodes (Griffiths, E., Tita, G., 2009). Indicators of the relative lack of meaningful out-group connectivity among many public housing residents can be found in previous NYCHA-focused research that categorized residents with such labels as: “working-class loners” and “coping but isolated” (Fagan, J., et al., 1998), and other public housing research describing similarly situated residents as “no-hopers” and “ferals” (Warr, D.J., 2005).

259. Community well-being is a nebulous concept, powerfully influencing one’s overall quality of life, and influenced by a host of multi-domain measures, such as: educational, environmental, family/home, financial, political, safety, transportation, and work factors, as well as one’s consumer, health, leisure, neighborhood, social, and spiritual lives (Sirgy, M.J., et al., 2009). Local criminal activity can have a deleterious effect on nearly all of these individual measures and the global perceptions of community well-being and resident reports of quality of life.

260. For example, see Renzetti and Maier’s (2002) review of fear of crime among and the violent victimization of female residents of public housing developments in Camden, New Jersey. There, facing elevated rates of IPV and other ‘private’ crimes, these women’s felt social isolation and disproportionate distrust of potential allies resulted in a prolonged continuation of their fear and victimization.

261. Beyond the “concentration of disadvantaged populations” and the “poorly designed residential environment” of public housing, the greatest influence on the trajectory of resident tensions are the neighboring styles adopted in these intensely sociable environments of tight proximity and gossipy familiarity (Cheshire, L., Buglar, S., 2015).

262. Neighbor interactions occur at the edges of private space (Stokoe, E.H., Wallwork, J., 2003). Invasions of these blurry boundaries – intentional or otherwise – affront notions of acceptable neighborliness and personal privacy, and serve to propel the escalation of conflicts well beyond the disputants’ otherwise casual connection.

263. The ability to avoid conflict by avoiding contact with one’s counter is particularly challenging in public housing developments where ingress to and egress from one’s private sphere requires traversing the common spaces shared by their stressors (Cheshire, L., Buglar, S., 2015).

264. For a modern review of how environmental design can influence crime and its prevention, see: MacDonald, J. (2015), particularly his discussion of two similarly populated but differently designed and ultimately divergently criminal NYCHA developments (Brownsville and Van Dyke).

265. Many authors have noted the high-levels of interpersonal support present within the social networks of public housing residents (most articulately: Cheshire, L., Buglar, S., 2015). Still, as a result of these residents’ economic and other strains, the nominal resources available through which they can materially manifest that support frustrates their more altruistic inclinations – an effectuative scarcity that stresses both the depleted giver and deprived receiver – and complicates both the conflicts and resolutions consequentially d/evolving therefrom.

266. One system wide survey of public housing managers in the UK reported neighbor disputes commanded 20% of housing staff time, while another reported between 5% and 40% with individual developments reporting allocations as high as 60% (Pawson, H., et al., 2005).

267. In a review of dispute resolution services in Queensland, Australia, instances of abuse, harassment, and/or threatening behavior were recorded for 66% of mediation intake cases that involved at least one resident of public housing, compared to only 39% for cases where neither participant resided in public housing (Cheshire, L., Buglar, S., 2015).

268. In the UK, for example, a national study revealed mediation services are actively utilized by more than two- thirds of public housing managers to address anti-social neighbor behaviors and housing-related conflicts (Flint, J., Pawson, H., 2009). While this level of referral participation is substantially higher than observed in NYC, even there, the volume of actual referrals was more trickle than flow.

269. In concluding their review of public housing conflicts, Cheshire and Buglar (2015) suggest the use of mediation as a primary “mechanism [that] needs to be put in place to support tenants when otherwise good or neutral neighbour relationships go wrong, and these need to be mobilised early on before problems become entrenched or turn nasty” (Cheshire, L., Buglar, S., 2015).

270. As of April 2016, NYCHA has a reported 403,275 authorized residents (New York City Housing Authority, 2016) and up to 100,000 unauthorized ‘ghost’ residents (Blumgart, J., 2016). By total resident population, NYCHA is over seven times larger than the next largest stateside public housing authority (Chicago serves 64,000 families; Chicago Housing Authority, 2016) and equivalent to the nation’s 35th largest city (current #35: Sacramento, CA, with 490,712 residents; U.S. Census Bureau, 2016b).

271. Fifteen NYCHA developments in particular account for 20% of all violent crime in NYC public housing (see supra note 39).

272. For example, “the assertion by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that visitors and residents of NYCHA housing should be fingerprinted before entering their homes evidences the criminalization of this population” (Sankofa, J., 2016). Such high-profile presumptions of NYCHA resident and guest criminality challenge their perceptions of acceptance and their willingness to cooperate with criminal justice system representatives.

273. For example, consider NYCHA’s controversial use of co-habitant and guest banishments. Nearly 5,000 individuals were “permanently excluded from NYCHA for criminal activity between 2007 and 2014 (Ungar- Sargaon, B., 2015). These ‘banishments’ can result from routine conflict scenarios, such as disturbance to neighbors, property damage, and violent behavior (New Destiny Housing, 2016), and last for specified or lifelong durations, even in the absence of subsequent criminal convictions (Goodridge, L., Strom, H., 2016). While the use of banishment by public housing authorities can result in modest improvements in the prevention of drug offenses and property crime, its disproportionate targeting of African American males (Cammett, A., 2016), the collateral consequences to family members such as ‘humiliating’ unannounced visits from housing investigators (Ungar-Sargon, B., 2015), and its potential to harm local perceptions of police effectiveness (Torres, J.A., 2016) are all causes for concern that beg for more sustainable, restorative alternatives.