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02-08-09, 12:30 PM #1
Breakthrough on law enforcement's 'broken windows' theory
LOWELL - The year was 2005 and Lowell was being turned into a real life crime-fighting laboratory.
Researchers, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work - clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded.
In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.
Then researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University sat back and watched, meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots.
The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated "bro ken windows" theory really works - that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.
"In traditional policing, you went from call to call, and that was it - you're chasing your tail," said Lowell patrol officer Karen Witts on a recent drive past a boarded up house that was once a bullet-pocked trouble spot. Now, she says, there appears to be a solid basis for a policing strategy that preemptively addresses the conditions that promote crime.
Many police departments across the country already use elements of the broken windows theory, or focus on crime hot spots. The Lowell experiment offers guidance on what seems to work best. Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.
Such evidence-based policing is essential, argues David Weisburd, a professor of administration of justice at George Mason University. "We demand it in fields like medicine," Weisburd said. "It seems to me with all the money we spend on policing, we better be able to see whether the programs have the effects we intend them to have."
And this particular study, he said, is "elegant" in how clearly it demonstrated crime prevention benefits.
The broken windows theory was first put forth in a 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson, a political scientist then at Harvard, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist. The theory suggests that a disorderly environment sends a message that no one is in charge, thus increasing fear, weakening community controls, and inviting criminal behavior. It further maintains that stopping minor offenses and restoring greater order can prevent serious crime.
That theory has been hotly debated even as it has been widely deployed.
Critics have pointed out that defining "disorder" is inherently subjective. Some challenge "broken windows" success stories, questioning, for example, whether New York City's decrease in crime in the 1990s could have been caused by the decline in the use of crack cocaine or other factors.
Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago who has been critical of broken windows policing method, called the Lowell experiment fascinating because it showed that changing the nature of a place had a stronger effect on crime than misdemeanor arrests.
"It helps practitioners," said Brenda J. Bond, assistant professor of public management at Suffolk and co-author of the study detailing the findings, published in August in the journal Criminology. "We need to . . . focus on hot-spot areas like this using these kinds of tools and techniques."
The work has directly influenced policing in Boston, said police Commissioner Edward Davis, who was chief in Lowell during the study. In Boston, Davis has created "safe street teams" that target disorder in 10 crime hot spots.
"We've given them a special number at City Hall to call for removal of graffiti, any kind of disorder, any broken windows, any trash in the street," Davis said. "You have to prove to the officers it works, and doing this type of experimentation, having findings published, goes a long way."
The strategies continue to flourish across Lowell. "Sometimes, we create mini-task forces to saturate an area at a particular time of day when we see disorder," Lowell police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee said. "We target those activities that could be a quality of life issue, like drinking, motor vehicle enforcement."
As Witts, the patrol officer, drove around the city last week, she pointed out evidence of success. A brick apartment building that once racked up 100 calls to police in a three-month period has, she said, had just one incident over the last six weeks. Gone, she noted, are the unregistered cars in the parking lot, the broken fence, and the code violations in the building - as well as problem tenants and crime.
The Lowell study is not the only support being given to the broken windows theory. A second study, published in the journal Science in December, reported on how it held up in individual experiments in Europe.
In one, researchers staked out an alley in Groningen, Netherlands, where people parked their bikes. They attached fliers to handlebars in one setting that was clean, and one in which the walls were covered with graffiti. They found that only a third of the participants tossed the fliers on the pavement in the clean alley, whereas more than two-thirds did so in the less orderly environment.
In a second experiment, researchers tried to stimulate a crime. Letters that clearly contained money were left sticking out of mailboxes, one in a clean neighborhood, and one in a neighborhood where the mailbox was covered with graffiti.
In the clean neighborhood, 13 percent of passersbys stole the envelope, while in the disorderly neighborhood, 27 percent did.
Beyond broken windows theory, psychologists are studying how the environment influences behavior and thinking.
"One of the implications certainly is that efforts that invest in improving the environment in terms of cleanliness may actually help in reducing moral transgressions because people perceive higher moral standards," said Chen-Bo Zhong, assistant professor of management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
All of which plays out in the theory that Wilson and Kelling introduced in 1982.
"Think of how long it took," Kelling, a Rutgers professor, said of the latest evidence. "If you're a police executive or a policy executive, you can't wait 27 years - you have to make good policy decisions based on bad data and good theory and correlation."
02-08-09, 07:38 PM #2
Just fascinating.....very good post, Term. I always believed that "Broken Windows" worked based on some limited work of my own in my precinct. Wilson and Kelling seemed to make a lot of sense to me even though it went against my "Hook em and book em" mentality. Kelling is right....it took 27 years to find this data and we simply can't wait that long in todays society.
Car 4I would like my country back. I used to believe that one man could never destroy this country. Not so sure anymore!
02-08-09, 07:46 PM #3
I reference the broken windows theory all the time, and I am normally met with eye rolls from my shift partners. I'm the only one on my shift that gets out and walks through alleyways, high crime areas, conducting business checks, etc.No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends - John 15:13
"The Wicked Flee When No Man Pursueth: But The Righteous Are Bold As A Lion".
We lucky few, we band of brothers. For he who today sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~The opinions, beliefs, and ideas expressed in this post are mine, and mine alone. They are NOT the opinions, beliefs, ideas, or policies of my Agency, Police Chief, City Council, or any member of my department.
02-08-09, 08:04 PM #4I would like my country back. I used to believe that one man could never destroy this country. Not so sure anymore!
02-08-09, 08:27 PM #5Officer First ClassVerified LEO
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I think the theory holds some weight, but it requires a united front and a lot cooperation to make use of it.
02-13-09, 09:47 AM #6THE five-ohVerified LEO
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My agency uses it, and we can usually see noticable differences when we put it to use in areas that are troublesome.
02-13-09, 11:09 AM #7Do not war for peace. If you must war, war for justice. For without justice there is no peace. -me
We are who we choose to be.
R.I.P. Arielle. 08/20/2010-09/16/2012
02-13-09, 11:12 AM #8
Don't forget about the courts being on board Lew. The DAs and the judges have to be willing to play ball too.
Meanwhile, fishing in Russia:
"When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that justifies it." -- Frederic Bastiat
"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter." Ernest Hemingway
The opinions given in my signatures & threads DO NOT reflect the opinions, views, policies, and/or procedures of my employing agency. They are my personal opinions only, thereby releasing my agency of any liability, or involvement in anything posted under the username "Five-0" on Officerresource.com
02-13-09, 12:52 PM #9
Exactly.Do not war for peace. If you must war, war for justice. For without justice there is no peace. -me
We are who we choose to be.
R.I.P. Arielle. 08/20/2010-09/16/2012
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