Sunday, February 08, 2009

empirical evidence viewed as breakthrough on 'broken windows' theory

I began thinking about and dealing with the urban situation in Worcester and then in Boston in the late 1960s.  Here's research done by people at Harvard and at Suffolk that "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 broken windows theory was first put forth in a 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson, a political scientist then at Harvard, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist. The theory suggests that a disorderly environment sends a message that no one is in charge, thus increasing fear, weakening community controls, and inviting criminal behavior. It further maintains that stopping minor offenses and restoring greater order can prevent serious crime.

That theory has been hotly debated even as it has been widely deployed.

It's good to note that all of this was accomplished without massive demolition or offering the obscenity of selective tax abatement. We must remember that safety is the keystone of urban replanning and redevelopment--we live on top of a goldmine, a wealth of built heritage, and all we have to do is stabilize it and restore it. It does not take banks, developers, and community development corporations; it takes uncompromised safety forces, a sense of values among the residents, and hard work. It's actually fairly simple.

Breakthrough on 'broken windows' - The Boston Globe

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