Crime has been on the rise across numerous major cities. Especially on the West Coast, some cities have witnessed an uptick in organized retail theft with people walking into stores and leaving with bags of stolen products. In other cases, multiple cars blocked the street in front of luxury stores and a flash mob rushed in and grabbed bags of merchandise before fleeing.
Is crime a social pathology that can be mitigated with behavioral modification or changing one’s surroundings? Many social scientists and criminologists believe it is and most people would agree. The area of contention is the degree that crime is perpetuated because of community values versus numerous other variables.
A popular theory that originated 40 or more years ago is called the Broken Windows theory of crime. In a nutshell the theory posits that if communities actively police the small quality of life crimes (like graffiti and vandalism), it will deter other types of criminal behavior. Broken windows theory can be interpreted in several ways: The people who commit major crimes also commit petty crimes and you will stop them in the process of policing petty crimes. Or more basic, that crime and disorder beget crime and if the environment isn’t one where crime and disorder is tolerated crime is less likely to occur.
The following is background on Broken Windows theory:
In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist from Stanford University, ran an interesting field study. He abandoned two cars in two very different places: one in a mostly poor, crime-ridden section of New York City, and the other in a fairly affluent neighborhood of Palo Alto, Calif. Both cars were left without license plates and parked with their hoods up.
After just 10 minutes, passersby in New York City began vandalizing the car. First they stripped it for parts. Then the random destruction began. Windows were smashed. The car was destroyed. But in Palo Alto, the other car remained untouched for more than a week.
Finally, Zimbardo did something unusual: He took a sledgehammer and gave the California car a smash. After that, passersby quickly ripped it apart, just as they’d done in New York.
One of the biggest advocates of broken windows theory was former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani. In places where it was adopted crime quickly fell. Opponents argue that at about the same time crime also fell in places it was not tried. University of Chicago economist, Steven Levitt argues that crime began to drop 18 years after abortion became legal in 1973.
Broken Windows was popularized by James Q. Wilson and colleague George Kelling:
In 1982, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson told a story about a window, a story that changed the fates of entire neighborhoods for decades. Writing in the March issue of The Atlantic, Kelling and Wilson proposed that American policing needed to get back to the project of maintaining order if America wanted communities be safe from harm. “Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence,” they argued. One broken window leads to scores of broken windows; broken windows signal the breakdown of neighborhood social control; neighborhoods become “vulnerable to criminal invasion,” communities ridden with destruction, drug dealing, prostitution, robbery, and ultimately, serious violence.
Broken Windows began to fall out of favor due to what many saw as racist, overzealous policing of minority neighborhoods. In 2019 Northeastern University-researchers even claimed to prove the theory was bogus. Yet, crime is on the rise, with crime seemingly tolerated in many cities (retail theft that prosecutors will not prosecute and police no longer bother to investigate, homeless camping on public property, vandalism, cars broken into, etc.). As a result, many experts are clamoring for a return of Broken Windows policing. A search of the news yields several recent articles touting the idea, including one by Charles Murray (In the decade before crime rose, ‘broken windows’ policing stopped) and one by a former New York City police commissioner (If You Want to Cut Down on Crime, Sweat the Small Stuff). There are also articles in the news cautioning against a return to Broken Windows policing, such as ”Broken Windows Policing Isn’t a Complete Recipe for Cutting Crime,” and “We Must Resist Returning to Broken Windows Policing.”
Whether so-called public disorder is a social pathology that leads to crime is open for debate. However, refusing to enforce and prosecute petty crimes like organized retail shoplifting should not be. It is safe to argue that burgeoning petty criminals can be influenced by others to commit crimes when they see that it is widespread and bears little risk. It is also easy to see how stealing shampoo and toothpaste without risk could lead to stealing shopping bags of OTC medications to sell and later to organized flash mobs looting jewelry stores using threat of violence.