This column is about broken windows. Oh, go ahead and read it anyway.
If you’re hip to criminology or urban history, you might know that the “broken windows” theory of crime – introduced in 1982 by two Stanford social scientists – is one of the most influential and controversial influences in the business, art and practice of making people feel safe.
Unless you’ve been on the International Space Station for a year or so, you know that crime rates in California – and yes, in cities like Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Westminster – have bent sharply upwards in recent months since Proposition 47 and other measures have downgraded the penalties for certain offenses, and reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors.
Like a lot of missteps, it sounded like a good idea at the time. Our prisons are stuffed with prisoners, many of them for drug offenses. Incarcerating someone is expensive, with the annual cost ranging anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 a year. The jails were overflowing and the budget busting.
The logic went like this: what’s the point of tossing someone in jail for possession of a plant or chemical they’re going to use privately? Is it really worth $50,000 times the number of nimrods dumb enough to a) use the stuff and b) get caught?
That reasoning didn’t take into account the law of unintended consequences, however. For example, a drug user might “need” to steal to support his or her habit, prompting burglaries or robberies. A drug user might drive while intoxicated, leading to more serious – or even fatal – accidents. Letting that drugee off with a fine or some community service puts the rascal back on the street to resume his or her wayward ways.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. There are other factors contributing to crime, including homelessness, the paucity of mental health and rehab resources and other influences. But the convergence of the new laws and the spike in “minor” offenses is too fresh to be discounted entirely.
In the theory advanced by James Wilson and George Kelling, the curbing of “minor” offenses such as drug use, vandalism and such are key to preventing more serious crimes from happening. Here is how it’s summarized in Wikipedia:
“A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, according to the book’s authors, is to address the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems are less likely to escalate and thus ‘respectable’ residents do not flee the neighborhood.”
In New York City, the “broken windows” philosophy is credited with returning a certain degree of urban sanity to the Big Apple. Aggressive panhandlers were run off. Graffiti was erased quickly. Broken windows were patched. A city once considered on the edge of chaos became much safer and is “hip” again.
But attached to that is the controversial “stop, question and frisk” approach of the NYPD. The principle was similar in that officers would reinforce the idea that “this area is off-limits to bad guys.” Unfortunately, it seemed that those stopped, questioned and frisked were – according to some observers – disproportionally black men, especially young black men. That concept has entered the political realm there and elsewhere.
An often-overlooked component of the “broken windows theory” is that responsibility for safety in a neighborhood falls not just on law enforcement, but also on residents and property owners. Tony Flores, a regular speaker at Garden Grove City Council meetings, has been lobbying for more police officers, a worthy but very expensive proposition.
But he’s also promoting the idea of more citizen patrols and vigilance. We don’t want vigilantes, but a greater emphasis on amateur eyeballs is a worthy idea. We can never afford enough people to stand guard in every neighborhood like mall cops, but misbehavior is often curbed if folks feel they are being watching by citizens willing to dial a phone and report it.
Neighborhood Watch programs were in vogue in the Eighties and early Nineties, but lost altitude as the crime rates dropped almost non-stop after that for almost a generation. Perhaps it’s time for us to again stand with law enforcement by keeping our eyes peeled, our phones charged and, of course, our windows fixed.
Jim Tortolano lives in a neighborhood where the “Neighborhood Watch” sign is faded, dented and almost as old as he imagines himself to be.