Sunday, February 08, 2009

Testing the "broken windows" theory

Lowell, Massachusetts tried a real-life experiment to see if the "broken windows" theory of crime actually works. The theory is that a disorderly environment with graffiti, trash, and broken windows sends a message that no one cares about that neighborhood and thus, the neighborhood will see increased crime.
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 "broken 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 theory has been controversial since it intruduced more than a quarter of a century ago. Rudy Giuliani relied on the theory for his efforts to lessen crime in New York City, but critics have argued that his success there was due more to the improving economy of the 1990s and decline in crack cocaine usage than to the methods put into effect based on the broken windows theory. This Lowell experiment should give encouragement to police departments across the nation seeking methods to decrease crime in their own neighborhoods.