News: Glass Houses

Competing theories define debate over crime

Share on Nextdoor
A map from 1927-29 shows the concentration of juvenile delinquency in Cincinnati neighborhoods.

For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. Can neighborhoods be lost for want of a repaired window? And does it matter who fixes that window?

An old proverb traces the loss of a kingdom to the loss of a battle, to the loss of a rider, to the loss of his horse, to the loss of its shoe, to the loss of a nail. John Eck uses the story to sum up the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention. Eck is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati and one of the principal architects of a recent study of racial profiling.

The broken windows theory holds that "public disorder" such as windows left broken, litter, graffiti and "squeegee men" — people washing car windows at intersections for tips — naturally lead to crimes such as drug dealing, armed assault and homicide.

"The basic notion here is if little things go wrong, big things will naturally follow," Eck says.

The theory has been the cornerstone of the tough policing promoted by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But aggressive enforcement has sometimes strained police-community relations.

That's not been the case in Boston, often cited as a counter-point to New York, where collaboration among police, social services and churches is credited with a reduction in homicides as dramatic as New York's.

Boston exemplifies the theory of "collective efficacy," which challenges the broken windows approach. Collective efficacy emphasizes social cohesion among neighbors, combined with their willingness to act on behalf of each other and their neighborhood. Proponents argue that collective efficacy is linked to reduced violence.

Collective efficacy produces results, hypothesize the authors of an intensive study called "The Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods." The decade-long analysis of Chicago's neighborhoods and their effects on the development of children was profiled in the Jan. 6 New York Times.

'Useful myths'
The two theories — New York's "broken windows" and Boston's collective efficacy — showed similar success until 2000, when Boston homicides again began to rise.

The best approach probably lies somewhere in between and somewhere to the side of the two theories.

Collective efficacy just "sounds too good," according to Eck.

"Gee, wouldn't it be nice if we all got together and looked out for each other?" he says. "I think it's probably as naíve on the left as broken windows is on the right."

Eck calls the broken windows theory — first named and fleshed out in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by James Wilson and George Kelling — a "testament to the writer's art, not to the social science."

Eck is more sympathetic to collective efficacy because its supporters are collecting evidence to fine-tune their theory.

"In a number of years they might actually have something that's more reasonable," he says.

There's been no direct test of the broken windows theory; all evidence is anecdotal, Eck says. He calls it a theory for "feel-good conservatives."

"Since it warms their hearts, they're willing to act on it," he says.

Though he says there's some link between disorder and crime, that relationship isn't clearly causal. Litter could well be the result of drug dealing rather than a cause. Or litter and drug dealing might both result from major disinvestment in a neighborhood.

Both the collective efficacy and broken windows theories are "useful myths" but fail to consider economic factors, Eck says.

"Neither one of them seems to allow for what I think is the strong role of economic forces," he says.

Neighborhoods also take on the character of residents engaged in "self-sorting." Eck says people living disorganized lives have difficulty renting places that expect a certain decorum, which leads to concentrations of people who have difficulty functioning or choose to prey on others.

He pulls out an illustration mapping the concentration of juvenile delinquents in Cincinnati from 1927-1929, with clusters in Madisonville and the West End and a heavy concentration in Over-the-Rhine. Eck shows this map to students to illustrate how little has truly changed.

He says crime patterns largely relate to how people manage property, which is influenced by property values and the way the city enforces health and safety codes. He cites Mount Lookout at an example of an area that sees a large amount of drinking without much disorder. That's because property owners there protect their investments by such actions as hiring off-duty police officers to regulate behavior.

Admit the window is broken
Some important numbers have changed, according to Councilman David Pepper. Homicide rates in Cincinnati rose from 9.6 per 100,000 residents in 1999 to 19.2 in 2002.

Pepper's agenda for the Law and Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, incorporates goals drawn from both theories.

"I think if you're doing things right, you're kind of doing a little of everything," he says. "Part of it may be it's how you address the broken windows that matters."

He says it's also a matter of short-term versus long-term solutions. "You pursue aggressive, proactive policing" while fostering partnerships with communities.

Pepper's also interested in identifying problems specific to each community. Last year city council approved his motion to join with community groups to create and annually track a set of "neighborhood indicators."

He plans to unveil the results of the first set of data measuring the "health and vitality of each and every neighborhood in Cincinnati" at the first neighborhood summit Jan. 31.

Victoria Straughn, chair of Concerned Citizens for Justice, believes a broken window does lead to serious crime. She also finds a powerful metaphor for denial in the broken windows theory.

"Before you can repair a broken window, you have to first realize and admit the window is broken," she says. "Unfortunately, people in powerful positions, in my opinion, have not realized the window is broken."

Monica Williams, outreach chair of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, suspects the broken windows theory is an easy out.

"A street full of broken windows in Hyde Park I don't think will translate into more crime in Hyde Park," she says.

Williams would like to see the principles of Community Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP) more widely implemented.

"I believe if we had a community council in Over-the-Rhine that was concerned about more than Main Street and Vine Street and a concerned police department and citizens who were willing to put a little on the line to help their brothers and sisters who are obviously in need, then we can begin to seek redress for these social ills," she says. ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.