Saturday, November 22, 2008

Broken Windows

One of the most important theories of crime control was developed in a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling proposing that if police act on any signs of community disorder, even to the level of broken windows in vacant buildings, it will send a message to criminals that crime is not allowed; while not responding sends the opposite message.

The theory was put into practice in New York under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Chief William Bratton, changing New York City from one of the most dangerous cities in America to one of the safest.

It is practice that has become a standard for police agencies throughout the nation and is very congruent with the key element Catholic social teaching understands as animating the responsibility of the state to sustain public safety, maintaining public order.

This article notes research examining that theory.

An excerpt.

“In a series of real-world experiments, people exposed to graffiti, litter and other cues of lawlessness were more likely to commit small crimes, according to a study published today that bolsters the controversial "broken windows" theory of policing.

“The idea is that low-level offenses like vandalism and panhandling create an environment that breeds bigger crimes. According to the theory, authorities can help head off serious violence by keeping minor infractions in check.

“Dutch researchers tested the psychological underpinnings of the theory and found that signs of social disorder damped people's impulse to act for the good of the community, allowing selfish and greedy instincts to take over. The results appear in the journal Science.

“Community policing strategies based on the "broken windows" theory have taken root in cities across the U.S. and around the world since it was proposed in 1982.

“Most famously, New York City saw a 50% reduction in crime in the 1990s after then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and then-Police Commissioner William J. Bratton -- now head of the Los Angeles Police Department -- cracked down on squeegee-wielding panhandlers and the like. They credited the "broken windows" approach for their success.”