Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Broken Windows Policing & the Parkway

We have referred to the broken windows form of policing—where even minor infractions like panhandling (or broken windows) are vigorously policed because a disorderly environment creates more disorder—in respect to the long time policy of essentially allowing camping by the homeless on the Parkway, which increases crime and reduces public safety in the Parkway and surrounding neighborhoods.

There is even a movement to create a permanent tent city on the Parkway and we blogged about it last month, here and here.

This article reports on recent research proving broken windows works.

An excerpt.

“LOWELL - The year was 2005 and Lowell was being turned into a real life crime-fighting laboratory.

“Researchers, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work - clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded.

“In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.

“Then researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University sat back and watched, meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots.

“The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated "bro ken 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.”