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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.