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John Petro

Have the Dutch Proven the Broken Windows Theory?

A new study from the Netherlands set out to experimentally test the "broken windows theory." Four experiments were conducted in which people's behavior was observed in both an orderly environment and a "disorderly" environment.

The study found that in the disorderly environments, people were more likely to litter, to take a shortcut through a fenced-off area (the researchers provided a convenient gap in the fence), and to take an envelope visibly containing a five-Euro note that was sticking out of a mailbox.

Now, I'm willing to take the study at face value. The study did find significant changes in behavior (littering, taking shortcuts). I'm just concerned that others will see this study as a justification for "zero tolerance" policing methods and stop-and-frisk policies (read this account of a stop-and-frisk), which not only harm relations between the police and the community, but may also needlessly put individuals behind bars. There is a social cost to locking up individuals for low-level and quality of life offenses, including the individual's future criminality (those who have served jail time are more likely to engage in violent criminal behavior) and in the impact of a criminal record on job prospects.

So, have the Dutch "proven" the broken windows theory? It depends on which version of broken windows you're talking about. It has shown that people are more likely to bend the rules, i.e. littering (very few of us can honestly say that they have never, ever littered). But it does nothing to prove the more spurious link between disorder and violent crime. If you go back to the source of the theory, the 1982 Atlantic article, this supposed link between vandalism and violent criminal behavior was always the weakest part of the argument:

"If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place."

Hmm, not so sure.

Even if disorder promotes criminality, what can the police do about it? The authors of the 1982 article, James Wilson and George Kelling, say that there is little police departments can do to promote order under the law, saying that to do so the police must take "informal or extralegal steps to protect... the appropriate level of public order." Or, as the authors quote one officer, to maintain order, "'We kick ass.'" (Think of Popeye Doyle from The French Connection.)

As an alternative, we should be looking at community prosecution, like what Multnomah County, Oregon, enacted in 1990. With community prosecution, the goal when dealing with low-level crime is compliance, not punishment.

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Posted at 10:10 AM, Dec 03, 2008 in Criminal Justice | Urban Affairs
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