Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Case For Fixing Those Windows

Hello Everyone:

Yours Truly is back from a much needed day off.  The Candidate Forum needed today off after the fast and furious Kavanaugh nomination news cycle. Right now, the FBI is investigating sexual assault allegations surrounding Federal Appellate Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh.  The Bureau expects to complete its work by today--at the earliest--in time for a procedural vote called by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  Truthfully, Yours Truly does not believe that this cursory investigation will settle matters. Judge Kavanaugh may still win confirmation. The final vote may happen next week and it just may come down to a few senators. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we are returning to the subject of "Broken Windows."  Broken Windows is a theory of law enforcement, introduced in 1982 by Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson and Rutgers sociologist George Kelling, in an article in The Atlantic.  We first looked at "Broken Windows" in mid-April, focusing on the efforts of Flint, Michigan. Flint took a different approach to addressing quality of life crimes by engaging in community involvement projects: fixing the broken windows, painting fences, weeding vacant lots as part of plan to cut down crime and encourage more exercise.  The theory behind it is "criminals perceive broken windows and other forms of disorder as signs of weak social control; in turn, they assume that crimes committed there are unlikely to be checked" (; Aug. 23, 2018; date accessed Oct. 3, 2018).  Messrs. Wilson and Kelling put forth,

Though it is not is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drug will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped.  

"Broken Windows" became the Bible of policing practiced by former New York City and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton.  In theory it reads like a practical way to fight crime--address the quality of life crimes (i.e. graffiti and selling loose cigarettes)--before they turn into serious crimes (prostitution and drug dealing)--in practice it led to more stopping and frisking more people of color, especially those living in high crime areas.  The problem with this theory is the racial component of it: it assumes that disorder typically has more to do with the racial composition of a neighborhood then actual broken windows or graffiti.  Consider the way James Q. Wilson and George Kelling frame their theory's flaws:

A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, embolden, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchants asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the store; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians approached by panhandlers. (Ibid)

Things go downhill from there. What is curious is the systemic way Messrs Wilson and Kelling break down the degradation of neighborhood: Abandoned property leads to weeds that obliterate it from public view.  This leads to windows being smashed and the catchy title of the article. You get the general idea. Eric Klinenberg writes, "Debates about the theory ignored the two problems at he root of its story, jumping straight to the criminal behavior. We got 'broken windows,' not 'abandoned property,' and very different policy policy response ensued" (Ibid). What if that hypothetical abandoned property received the same level attention given to petty criminals for the past thirty years?

This is the idea behind University of Pennsylvania criminologist John MacDonald and Columbia University epidemiology chair Charles Branas' social science research experiment.  During a conference in Philadelphia, Mr. Branas briefly mentioned an interest in conducting an experiment on the physical factors linked to gun violence. He recalled, When I finished, someone from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society approached...(Ibid).  Phildelphia had a lot of empty lots that were driving up violent crime rates in low-income neighborhoods. The P.H.S. had fantastic data and offered to assist.  

This excited Messrs. Branas and MacDonald were excited about it. There was an established body of literature on the correlation between abandoned properties and crime. In 1993, criminologist William Spelman published a paper demonstrating that, in Austin, crime rates on blocks with open abandoned buildings were twice as high as rates on matched blocks without open buildings... (Ibid).  Sociologist Lance Hannon presented evidence that "New York City's high-poverty areas, the number of abandoned houses in a given a census tract correlated with homicide levels (Ibid)."  Messrs MacDonald and Branas wanted to do a deeper dive that required collecting an enormous amount of data and creating an experiment. They invited a health economist, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Emergency Medicine, and a medical anthropologist. 

In the first experiment, they studied violent crime around 2,356 abandoned buildings that were in violation of the city's anti-blight ordinance. "A set of six hundred and seventy-six buildings had been remediated by the owners,"... (Ibid). Between 2010 and 2013 the researchers compared monthly violent crime rates a around treated buildings with violent crime rates in randomly selected, geographically equivalent neglected buildings. 

The second experiment looked at the connection between violent crime and vacant lots.  "According to the team's research there were 49,690 such lots in Philadelphia.  P.H.S. had remediated at least 4,436 of them,... it had cleared trash and debris, graded the land, planted grass and trees to create a park-like setting, and installed low fences with walk-in openings to facilitate recreational use and deter illegal dumping (Ibid)."  Again, they compared these lots to randomly selected, geographically equal sites; over a decade 1999 to 2008.

Keith Green, an employee of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, and his colleagues suspect that remediation the empty lots were improving Philadelphia's low-income neighborhoods, but we're not quite sure.  Charles Branas and John MacDonald had a more specific theory: "...remediation would reduce violent crime nearby."

It's not simply that they are signs of disorder,.... It's that the places themselves create opportunities for gun violence; they take what might be just a poor neighborhood and make it poor and dangerous.  (Ibid)

The reasons are pretty simple to understand. "Abandoned buildings are good places for people involved crime to hide when on the run. They're also good places to store firearms. Untended lots are notoriously useful for drug dealing--in part because most law-abiding residents avoid them, and in part because dealers can hide their products in the weeds and tall grass if the police drive by (Ibid)."  Thus making them hard to monitor. 

One compelling piece of evidence gleaned from the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health (; Nov. 10, 2016; date accessed Oct. 3, 2018) was "a thirty-nine-percent reduction in gun violence in and around remediated lots."  Just as compelling was, according to Mr. Branas, "...there was no evidence that the violence has simply to nearby places" (; Aug. 23, 2018).  The declines were real and sustained over nearly one to four year period. Needless to say, Mr. Branas was quite pleasantly surprised.

Therefore, we can infer that fixing those broken windows may be a better approach to addressing quality of life crimes than the "stop and frisk" approach. Early in his career, Mr. Branas worked on conventional anti-violence focused on the people most likely to commit crimes.  He now believes that was a failed experiment.  He said,

When I started at Penn, we had been working hard to reduce gun crime in Philadelphia. We had the interpreters,not he social workers the community leaders,.... Some of them were amazing, and he had some success. But they were always short-lived.... In the end, it wound up helping only, I don't know, about fifty kids, just the ones who were there at the time.... (Ibid)

At present we have a president who is calling for a national "stop and frisk" program and an attorney general (for now) who wants harsher sentencing guidelines.  At the same time, we are investing so little in the amenities that benefit communities and neighborhoods: libraries, parks, senior centers all the very things that put more "eyes on the street."  We spend less than that addressing the criminal "hot spots"--the vacant lots and abandoned buildings that make up about 15 percent of urban space (Ibid).  

What the Philadelphia study suggests is that place-based interventions have a greater success rate than people-based interventions.  Think about it for a second, something as simple as a neighborhood or community, like the ones in Flint or Detroit, coming together to pick up the trash, plant a garden, or install recreation equipment in a vacant lot can be more effective than randomly stopping, frisking, and arresting people for just walking down the street.  Here is another thing to consider, place-based interventions have a way of bringing people together.  People get know each other, which can mean the difference in crime deterrence. Imagine that?

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