March 31, 2009


Contagious Crime: The source: “The Spreading of Disorder” by Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg, in Sciencexpress, Nov. 20, ­2008. (Wilson Quarterly)

Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg of the social science faculty at the University of Groningen attached annoying “Happy Holidays” flyers to the handlebars of bicycles parked in an alley with a big “No Littering” sign on the wall. No trash can was provided. When the alley walls were pristine, 67 percent of the bicyclists took the flyer with them to dispose of properly. When the same area was scribbled with graffiti, only 31 percent did.

The researchers conducted an experiment with an envelope, allowing it to protrude out of a mailbox with a five-euro bill visible through the clear window showing the address. When the mailbox was free of graffiti, 13 percent of passersby pocketed the money. When it was covered with graffiti, 27 percent did so. In another experiment, the research­ers partially blocked the en­trance to a parking lot with a temporary fence. Customers were ordered by the parking lot’s owner not to lock their bikes to the fence and to walk about 220 yards to an alternate entrance. When four nearby bikes were clearly not locked to the fence, 73 percent of the people walked the extra distance; when the bikes were locked to the fence, in violation of the posted order, only 18 percent ­did.

Watch a movie from the 70s or early '80s and you'll be struck both by how run-down the backgrounds tend to be and by the omnipresence of at least the threat of crime. A quarter century later, after 25 years of broken-window policing, three strikes laws, mandatory sentencing, and jailing two million people, crime doesn't even register as a concern in the modern American psyche. It's a remarkable turnaround.

Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety (George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, March 1982, Atlantic Monthly)

[A]t the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by "vandals" within ten minutes of its "abandonment." The first to arrive were a family—father, mother, and young son—who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began—windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult "vandals" were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the "vandals" appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

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. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx—its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of "no one caring"—vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. But 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 that "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.

At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. "Don't get involved." For some residents, this growing atomization will matter little, because the neighborhood is not their "home" but "the place where they live." Their interests are elsewhere; they are cosmopolitans. But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments rather than worldly involvement; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet.

Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes' customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently. That muggings will occur.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 31, 2009 6:34 AM
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