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Broken windows

In an earlier post that laid out an agenda for the state’s largest city, I mentioned the “broken windows” theory and the need for the city of Little Rock to adopt such an approach.

The “broken windows” theory was the work of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a March 1982 article in The Atlantic.

They wrote at the time: “Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. … Vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers — the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility — are lowered by actions that seem to signal ‘no one cares.’ We suggest that ‘untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.”

When the “broken windows” theory was introduced, it gained immediate attention from academics and government policy wonks. Someone had finally made the connection between disorder and urban decay. In language that mayors across America could understand, Wilson and Kelling made the case that if you control disorderly behavior in public places, a significant drop in serious crime will follow.

It’s amazing how many cities — including Little Rock — failed to follow that simple advice. They chose instead to hold “listening sessions” with gang members (who will ever forget then-Mayor Jim Dailey holding court with gang leaders with bandannas pulled over their faces?) and to create midnight basketball leagues. They eschewed using the resources to instead crack down on vagrancy, vandalism and panhandling.

In New York City, however, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted the approach. Crime in the city’s subways fell by 75 percent in the 1990s. What happened wasn’t that complicated. The police simply returned to their old tradition of maintaining public order in addition to fighting crime.

In a 2006 article in The American Interest, Wilson and Kelling wrote:  “The urban American public was upset by signs of disorder such as graffiti, public drunks, aggressive panhandlers, street-corner drug dealers and hostile gangs of youth. When the police were first formed in American cities they took such matters seriously, but as other agencies developed that supposedly were interested in human distress, and with the rise in serious crime rates, the police increasingly confined themselves to investigating offenses.”

Wilson and Kelling went on to write: “High levels of public disorder could indirectly increase crime rates. This would happen as disorder discouraged honest people from using the streets, thereby leaving public spaces available for small-scale offenses and then more serious ones. We used the metaphor of a building with a broken window: If it were not promptly fixed, more windows would be broken. And so if public disorder were not eliminated, more disorder and then more serious crime would become commonplace. … We believe that when the police work to restore order and do so in a decent and lawful fashion, they have produced an important public good. We doubt it is necessary to justify that result; it is, we think, self-evidently good.”

As one might expect, the theory has its critics. But like Wilson and Kelling, I believe the benefits are self-evident. And I believe an aggressive approach is needed now in Little Rock — not only by the police department but also by code enforcement officers — to once again make this city a place that those from all parts of this largely rural state look forward to visiting.

Your thoughts?

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