Sunday, February 8, 2009

broken windows theory—it's time for DC to REALLY understand the implications

check out this article from today's edition of the boston globe. police in the massachusetts city of lowell conducted an experiment on the efficacy of the broken windows theory, which postulates that signs of urban decay, from things as simple as leaving piles of trash on the street, all the way up to boarded up buildings along a commercial strip, lead to negative outcomes (especially crime) happening in the affected neighborhoods.

the leadership of new york city police department became early believers in the theory, and many people attribute the drop in crime in that city during the 1990s to adherence to a "zero tolerance" policy that led police to cite offenders for minor crimes. the belief was that cracking down on these minor crimes (like littering and vandalism) would lead to a decrease in major crimes. many believe the policy worked; others believe that it was the end of the crack epidemic that led to the downturn in crime.

now, though, it appears that researchers from harvard and suffolk universities have seen enough data to give credence to the thought that paying attention to the little things can make a community safer in the long run. check out this quote from the article.

"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.
the article also notes this, which is one heck of a conclusion:
Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.
i'd really recommend you go read the whole thing, and i'd really hope that our police here in the district are paying attention. i don't want to disparage social services, and i certainly don't want to see police not crack down on misdemeanors, but i really hope this encourages people who are ridiculed for insisting on better trash cleanup, painting over graffiti, and trying to get vacant buildings occupied to keep pushing for what they believe will help their communities.

(hat tip to rob goodspeed for sharing this article)


Anonymous said...

"i'd really hope that our police here in the district are paying attention"

The vast majority of MPD officers live in Maryland. Why should they care?

Besides, their grandparents used to own homes in the District, and they never complained during the crack and prostitution wars.

Now you (we) come along and say we don't like litter. That only serves to irritate all the District employees who don't live in DC. They don't care.

Anonymous said...

The city is actually really responsive in cleaning up trash piles like this. A vacant house on my street occasionally becomes a dumping ground, and after an e-mail to Alice Thompson, it's cleaned up w/in a day or two. In the last case I was informed the owner was cited.

For stuff like this, it's easy to pass the buck and say the police should enforce it. What is the chance they are going to catch someone in the act?

What about everyone else living next door? If you see something, take down a licence place, get a description of who's dumping and call your local city outreach person. Even if you don't see who is dumping, take 2 minutes, send an e-mail and watch the trash pile disappear. It would be nice for the city to be pro-active, but this is one area where everyone, really, can make a difference