Do It Yourself Crimefighting

I finally got around to reading this Boston Globe article about the selective implementation of the “broken windows” theory of crime in Lowell, Mass. A partnership between some academics and the police department identified 34 crime “hot spots,” then in half of the places they took proactive steps to clean up blight, provide social services, or do more to combat misdemeanors and loitering. In the other half of the high-crime locations, they continued with traditional police techniques (basically doing normal patrols and responding to 911 calls, but nothing preventive or proactive).

The Globe article summarizes the conclusions of the researchers as such:

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 “broken windows” theory really works – that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.

Without knowing the details of the study, I’m not so convinced that this “plunge” is so “striking.” While a 20% decline is substantial, it seems predictable that any kind of extra attention given to a crime hot spot will be likely to reduce crime in that particular location — you could assign a few officers to stand at a certain location 24 hours a day, and crime at that spot would “plunge” by close to 100%, but so what? The more important question is which kinds of extra attention accomplish the most good in the most efficient way.

Thankfully, the researchers must have taken steps to isolate certain kinds of “extra attention” from others, and that’s where the more interesting information is. According to the Globe, “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.” The correlation between the quality of the physical environment and the likelihood of people to commit crimes has also been established by some fascinating experiments in the Netherlands.

Assuming that these findings are valid, they could be very useful for people (and governments) in high-crime areas. Social services, however much they may help in other ways, are probably not an efficient way to reduce crime (sorry, bleeding heart, thug-coddling liberal hippies); zero tolerance for misdemeanors is also probably not a very efficient way to reduce crime (sorry, tough on crime, lock-’em-all-up conservative fascists). If you want bang for your buck, the way to reduce crime the most is to make the place you spend your life prettier — sounds like a win-win situation to me!

Since I live in a medium-crime part of a high-crime city, and since I’m interested in the effects of the urban physical environment for unrelated reasons, I find these studies to be pretty heartening news.

Unlike providing social services or cracking down on misdemeanor crimes, the aesthetics of the physical environment is something that residents of a neighborhood can easily improve without requiring the aid of the police department or city hall. Oakland’s police department is chronically understaffed, plagued by repeated scandals, and led by incompetents or worse, so it is a relief to know that there are ways to combat crime that don’t involve a responsive and accountable police force. Most of Oakland’s elected officials are too busy bickering over parking spaces at City Hall or trying to drive business away from the city to actually get anything useful done, so it is a relief to know that there are ways to combat crime that don’t involve a responsive and fiscally healthy municipal government.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to combat blight in our neighborhoods (it’s hard to get residents to care about anything beyond their own walls, and the collapsing economy is obviously not helpful), but small things such as picking up litter, turning an unsightly patch of dirt into a flower or vegetable garden (whether it be one’s front yard or an abandoned lot down the block), or painting over graffiti on one’s front stoop are not very hard to do, and are probably more effective than trying to get someone from downtown to do something productive in a timely manner.

9 Responses to “Do It Yourself Crimefighting”

  1. wordnerd says:

    Are there generalizations to this? Suppose ghetto schools were fixed up to look like pastoral campuses…

  2. dc says:

    wordnerd: I’m sure that kind of thing has been studied. When I was in high school, they renovated our science wing, and the “new” classrooms were painted in pretty ugly pastel colors. I remember being told by a teacher that the school had chosen specific colors that had been shown to be conducive to learning. I don’t know if they were right, but apparently school districts do think about these things.

    I’ve read about research showing that the presence of trees in inner city environments is strongly correlated with lower crime and violence (and improved mental health, and stronger communities, and…):

    “In a 2001 study in one Chicago public housing development, there were dramatically fewer occurrences of crime against both people and property in apartment buildings surrounded by trees and greenery than in nearby identical apartments that were surrounded by barren land. In fact, compared with buildings that had little or no vegetation, buildings with high levels of greenery had 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes. Even modest amounts of greenery were associated with lower crime rates. The greener the surroundings, the fewer the number of crimes that occurred.

    “Greenery lowers crime through several mechanisms. First, greenery helps people to relax and renew, reducing aggression. Second, green spaces bring people together outdoors, increasing surveillance and discouraging criminals. Relatedly, the green and groomed appearance of an apartment building is a cue to criminals that owners and residents care about a property and watch over it and each other.”

  3. We Fight Blight says:

    Thanks for the great posting. We are very much interested in the connection between blight and crime. Based on our review of various studies, we believe that improving the physical and aesthetic characteristics of our communities helps to send an important message to criminals that a community does care and that people are watching out. If people care and are watching out, then criminals are less likely to feel that they have an unconstrained ability to commit crimes. This subtle deterrent is important in taking back out neighborhorhoods. I always find it interesting when people want to debunk the broken window theory citing that there is no causal relationship to blight and crime, seemingly arguing that it’s okay to keep neighborhorhoods in a state of blight. At the least, a focus on blight will help to improve our communities and make theme more enjoyable for residents. Apart from crime, blight exerts a tremendous cost on our communities. See We are under no illusion that eliminating blight will eliminate crime, it is but one piece of the puzzle that must be addressed to make our communities safer.

  4. dc says:

    We Fight Blight: Your efforts in North Oakland/South Berkeley are heroic. Keep it up!

    Following up on my point about local government being unable or unwilling to provide basic services, I was not very surprised yesterday to see that due to budget constraints, the City of Oakland no longer has litter receptacles in some city parks, and can’t perform other basic maintenance in a timely manner. Allowing city parks to become litter-filled and broken-down seems like a good way to cause parents and children to steer clear of them, and to encourage drug dealers to set up shop there.

  5. m says:

    I’ve seen the same effect firshand in the classroom. Graffiti strewn disorganized room=students act out more. Clean, organized, scrubbed clean room=students better behaved. Of course there are/could be other factors at play, but I think regardless of the other elements, that one alone does make a difference.

  6. dc says:

    m: Interesting to hear that you could actually notice a difference in student behavior depending on the tidiness of the classroom. I think that there’s a similar effect in retail stores too: customers behave more respectfully in clean, well-kept stores (and tend to think the merchandise is worth more too). People unconsciously pick up a lot of signals from our environment, and without realizing it, we’ll behave differently based on those subtle perceptions. It’s kind of spooky.

  7. ruth gutmann says:

    I don’t know how many foreclosures or abandoned properties there are in Oakland currently, but whatever the number, the effects on the neighborhood are awful according to the reports one hears (by NPR, a.o.). Some towns are trying to buy those buildings, fix them up and rent them out — once the owner or lender is known.

    So people who are determined to remedy blight have my admiration.

  8. wordnerd says:

    When it comes to stimulating the intellect, maybe greenery is the visual equivalent of Mozart.

  9. Luana says:

    One thing, in further planning, steps must be taken to hobble the multifamily unit property owners on rent hikes. The only negative affect on those existing inhabitants is rent hikes due to the resulting rising prosperity. If your job is what it is, and you moved there because it was the best you could find for your budget, then when property values rise drastically due to cleanup, you won’t be able to pay for those hikes in rent. The neighborhood becomes a better place to rent and the demand causes rent increases and higher mortgages and taxes for new homeowners, especially in enclosed communities like an island. You have to prepare the tax incentives and whatever else works to prevent giant jumps. Give them a chance to have the improvements affect their psyche and improve their demeanor and performance at work so they have a chance at a raise. You have to prepare the tax incentives for property owners to slowly make increases, and whatever else works to prevent giant jumps.

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