08 April 2019

Ken's Grand Unified Theory of Broken Windows

I got into this tangentially the other day, so I thought I'd set out why I think "broken windows" works as one aspect of proactive policing.

The theory, as usually laid out is that lesser crimes lead to greater crimes and punishing lesser crimes, as well as cleaning them up, breaks the causal chain. First, let me say that I don't believe it breaks the chain directly. Stopping someone from tagging a wall and painting over tagged walls as quickly as possible doesn't stop the guy down the street from selling drugs out of his house. In fact, I generally agree with the article cited here that posits that most violent crime is personal in nature and therefore isn't directly effected by broken windows policing. I also believe that collective efficacy has an affect growing out of broken windows in a couple possible ways, at least one of which will probably not be viewed favorably by its fans. However, I think that the biggest factor is most likely the growth of affluence.

I'm going to give two examples of what I mean. These are two general models for how broken windows can work. Neither involves actually breaking the chains of criminal behavior directly, but lead to it.

I.  Displacement Model:

This one will be viewed as less pleasant because it is for those displaced. For those of you old enough to remember the fussing about gentrification, it's at the heart of this. Here is a map of the area I grew up in in Lexington, Kentucky:

I've colored part of it blue to represent nice houses where people of a certain station live even though it's on the wrong side of town. Yellow is a sketchy part of the neighborhood where people aren't thrilled to live, but make do despite higher crime rates and run down houses. Peach is the part of the neighborhood where police only go in force and nobody sane walks the streets after dark. All of the sections are arbitrarily chosen; I'm sure nobody in Lexington actually views the Northside as anything but a land of hugs and cookies.

Anyway, let's say the Lexington Police Department concentrated on the area and swamped it with officers to stop all the petty crime they set their eyes on. As well, they have people doing community service come in and clean everything up as soon as any mess is made (new windows, new paint, etc.). Minor, observable crime disappears along with its signs.

What happens next? After a while, some innovative sort looks across from the blue area and sees some decent houses that are dirt cheap and starts buying and renovating. Then he spins them out for sale to young professional types who want the perks of a nice house, but can't afford to get anywhere near as nice a place on the "good side" of town. Likewise, displaced people from the sketchy area start moving into the bad area and it is improved because these people aren't bad, they just can't afford to live elsewhere. The map starts to look like this:

The green are the places starting to have young professional types moving in and the orange is the consequent movement of the displaced. Property values start rising. More builders catch on and start buying and renovating. More young professionals start thinking this is a good place to live. Police start seeing Biff and Madison in their weekend polos and weekday suits and start treating the neighborhood like they do a place where Biffs and Madisons live. The affect continues to spread.

Now you've made the blue and green area much larger. The sketchy area has changed to include the remnant of the yellow and the orange. The really bad area has shrunk and hopefully those leaving it have gotten scattered and lost connections and customers.

Local governments love this sort of thing. It brings them lots and lots of new taxes from an area that was a black hole for their funds before. That's why they'll listen patiently to community activists et al. complaining about gentrification and swear they'll ensure mixed communities. Then they'll sit back and collect their taxes as property values go up and drive the prior residents out.

And here is where collective efficacy (a fancy way to say informal community standards) come into play. Depressed communities may accept a lot of criminal behavior, but once the community becomes filled with young professionals that sort of thing isn't going to cut it anymore. These folks won't steal, fight for neighborhood territory, or sell drugs on the street and they won't tolerate it at any great level. Whether you are one of them or someone still hanging on from before (if you can stay as the neighborhood improves around you why wouldn't you?) you know what behavior is acceptable and you color within the lines. Stepping out of line could mean shunning by the community, but more importantly the people now in the neighborhood will call the police on you and expect a satisfactory response. The police, now dealing with Biffs and Madisons will respond more rapidly and decisively than before. And thus informal standards fall into place and become the norm.

II.  Economic Growth Model:

Sometimes there are barriers to the type of model above. The area outside of the blue might be riddled with government housing projects. The houses in the yellow and peach areas might all be ugly orange brick houses built to exactly the same design, have about the same space as a single wide trailer, and have no land around them. Community activists could actually win the fight and make it impossible for buildings to be improved and other people to move in (usually thru getting control of whatever government entity controls building permits). The yellow and orange areas could be down wind from the local paper mill. What happens then?

Well, in these circumstances property values don't increase, taxes don't increase, and outsiders don't move in. What can happen, if the situation is stabilized long enough, is that a better quality of merchants moves in.

If you've lived in one of these areas (yes, I have) you know the kind of merchants set up shop in them. They get a terrible reputation for inflating prices which have to be paid by a captive customer base and selling lots of alcohol and tobacco. There are reasonable explanations for some of this such as lack of economy of scale and/or a chain of supply (except mass purchases at Wal*Mart), but that's not what we're here for today. We're here to examine what happens when low level crime disappears  and the streets clean up.

Well, Businessman Bob may not want to live there, but he's quite willing to set up a business if he believes it will be safe and profitable. So a Winn Dixie, 7-11, Shoneys, and Food Lion move in. They provide employment. They provide a supply chain connected to a powerful economy of scale and therefore significantly lower prices. They improve the local quality of life and thus boost collective efficacy.

The depressed community improves. That improvement, combined with continued guarantee by law enforcement of clean streets free of low level offenders, can spark a set of informal rules that put people to work and lean against the commission of crimes that would cause a slide backwards.

Admittedly, I think this second model is more tenuous. Rather than changing the makeup of the community, you are trying to change the behavior of the members of a community which has already settled into an acceptance of a constant level of criminal activity. That is both more difficult and a potentially better result because it moves a group into a better life first through enforcement and later through self imposition.


In summary, I think broken windows is the opening step. It allows communities to improve by presenting an appearance and actuality of a community safer from the identifiable low level crimes that drive people away. Thus it leads to neighborhood improvement by encouraging some sort of affluence to come into the community. This builds a collective efficacy that is anti-crime in defense of the affluence.

It is also the opening step for law enforcement to start using more proactive techniques. This doesn't have to be anything as draconian as New York's former no reasonable suspicion stop and frisk program. It can be flooding this troubled area with patrols so that officers are constantly seen combined with multiple consensual encounters and the occasional constitutionally valid Terry stop. This is the more modern computer driven model of policing relying on data to determine which areas need to be flooded with officers to provide a presence to damp down trouble and catch actual troublemakers instead of casting a massive net by just stopping anybody who catches the officer's eye (and making the officers keep track of their stop numbers).

What it isn't is an immediate causal break between the commission of minor crimes and major crimes. It's a part of a process which either changes the makeup of a community so that its new members are more affluent and invested in an ordered life and, as a side effect of this, serious crime is curtailed, or it's part of a process which can bring economic benefits to those in a depressed area and over a longer period lead to a decline in serious crime. The second is a much harder process and would require longer police investment to maintain the stability for the new conditions to set in the minds of the community as the norm.


Before anyone fusses at me about the simplicity of these models, yes they are simplistic. This is a blog post not a fifty page article in The Journal of Perfect Solutions for which I've spent five years gathering data and metadata. I realize there are all sorts of variables and conditions not dealt with here. In particular there is the pushback problem.

No matter how well intentioned something like this is at its inception and no matter how bad off the community, there will always be pushback both from members of the community and from those outside the community who fancy themselves as protectors of some sort. The internal dynamics of the community are easy to understand. People in depressed communities want a safe place to live too. They want the violence to stop and the drug dealers to go away. And then you arrest cousin Joey, who's the only one living with and caring for Grandma and has three kids he needs to take care of as well. Suddenly, the fact that he was selling drugs isn't all that important and they want you to leave them alone.

Third party protectors can range from the naive and ignorant, thru those who work in the community on a daily basis and are invested in the now, to the cynical who are using the community to forward their own politics or policies. In any event, there will always be a significant pushback.

However, the fact that there is opposition to the models above doesn't mean the models aren't valid. It just means that there may not be the will to overcome those that push for the status quo. After all, if you're the chief of police or mayor isn't it easier to just isolate a bad community instead of trying to fix it? You can concentrate your patrolling efforts on the better parts of town where people expect protection and low crime rates. Nobody will be screaming at you because you're arresting too many people from one area (who are likely to share an ethnicity). It's simply easier to contain instead of trying to fix.

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