James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory is simple: broken windows, or other symbols of public disorder, invite crime. Thus, if you clean up the neighborhood, crime should go away. The NY Times discusses research conducted by Felton Earls, Rob Samson, Steve Raudenbush and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn testing this theory. They drove an SUV through *thousands* of Chicago streets and recorded with a video camera just about everything that was visible on the street – garbage, loitering, grafitti, etc. They also had data on crime and the attitudes and behavior of residents. Analysis of data showed that public signs of disorder such as garbage were not linked to crime. Instead, concentrated poverty and the willingness of residents to self-police (“collective efficacy”) explained the incidence of crime. The Times quotes Earls:
“If you got a crew to clean up the mess,” Dr. Earls said, “it would last for two weeks and go back to where it was. The point of intervention is not to clean up the neighborhood, but to work on its collective efficacy. If you organized a community meeting in a local church or school, it’s a chance for people to meet and solve problems.
“If one of the ideas that comes out of the meeting is for them to clean up the graffiti in the neighborhood, the benefit will be much longer lasting, and will probably impact the development of kids in that area. But it would be based on this community action – not on a work crew coming in from the outside.”
This point should be taken to heart by all students of crime. Yes, of course, police are necessary for public order and safety. But the police are finite resource – they can’t possibly monitor every street and corner. Thus, on a fundamental level, public safety comes from a community’s ability to regulate itself. The next time you hear a call for more police, or more prisons, or more public works, think about this insight.