Adonis Diaries

The Broken Window theory for crime epidemics: What is this tipping point?

Posted on: October 16, 2008

The Broken Window theory for crime epidemics

December 3, 2007

In the chapter “The power of context” of his book “The tipping point”,  Malcom Gladwell developed on the theory of the Broken Window that encourages crimes and lead to an epidemic of all kinds of quality-of-life deterioration. The criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable results of disorder; if you pass through a street and notice broken windows unrepaired then your attitude is that nobody cares and thus, nobody is in charge to stop any further behavior for disorderly conducts.  If a neighborhood cannot keep a panhandler from annoying passerby, the thief might reason that it is unlikely that the residents would call the police to identify a potential mugger or robber.

David Gunn was hired by the New York City Transit Authority to rebuild and rehabilitate the subway system.  Instead of buying new trains Gunn focused on removing the graffiti off the trains; only completely clean trains were returned on the lines.  At night, the graffiti kids would enter the parking lot where the dirty trains were located and spend three days to paint a train.  Only when their work of art is done, would the Transit employees walk in with their roller and paint it over.

The kids were in tears that after three nights of work their work of art would not be shown and they gave up.  Gunn’s figured that if the graffiti war is not won all the management reforms and physical changes would never take off.

William Bratton was hired by the Authority to head the transit police.  Instead of going after the serious crimes in the subway Bratton concentrated his forces on the fare-beating practices; 170,000 people a day were entering the system without paying a token.  Heavy police forces were placed on entrances and nabbed fare-beaters, handcuffed, left standing on the platform until a full catch is rounded up.

Bratton retrofitted a city bus with fax machines, fingerprinting facilities and phones and transformed it into a rolling station house; bureaucratic work that took a whole day to process one small case was done within an hour.  The fight against fare-beaters collected serious criminals; one out of seven fare-beaters had an outstanding warrant for a previous crime and one out of twenty was carrying a weapon.

The thugs wised up and began to leave their weapons home and pay fares. Then crimes on quality-of –life like “squeegee men” on intersections, panhandlers, public urination, public drunkenness, and empty bottle throwers were rounded up.  The epidemic of crimes was reduced by two third within a couple of years in New York City.  Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes were tipping points for violent crime.

The Broken Window theory is based on the premise that an epidemic can be reversed and can be tipped by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment.  The Power of Context is suggesting that, without denying the important factors as genetic disposition or family upbringing or social conditions or economic status or unemployment or laws that discriminate among people status, specific situations are the main causes for criminal actions.

A person is acutely sensitive to his environment, alert to all kinds of cues in the external context he is surrounded with and is prompted to commit crime based on his perception of the world around him. The context of the surrounding environment is pernicious and in an unconscious way alters the behavior of people who are generally normal on any set of psychological measures.  Countless experiments have demonstrated that the situational context is the prime variable for exhibiting drastic behavioral actions that are normally under control.

Seemingly normal people, and knowing full well that they are performing in experiments, the group assigned the role of jailers exhibited creative talents for cruelty and sadistic behavior and the prisoners behaved as prisoners and rioted and became hysterics within just a couple of days.

We tend to describe and judge people in the absolute, a person is a certain way or is not a certain way, honest, just, and generous and so forth, but we fail to be specific that any of these characteristics fails in different situations.  By thinking in terms of inherent traits and forgetting the role of situations we are basically deceiving ourselves about the real cause of human behavior.

I cannot but draw a note about our situation in Lebanon.  After all the calamities and lengthy civil wars and relentless unstable political and economic problems and our lacking of strong and coherent central governments, any one of us is a potential criminal. A minor alteration in a situation is tantamount to a criminal behavior; I guess that somehow we are more aware subconsciously than other developed nations of this important factor and we self-sensor our movements and living locations so that we don’t squeeze ourselves into unwarranted environment.

We are standing on a powder keg and any tiny variation in the actual situation is tantamount to a major conflagration.  We have actually avoided several starts of civil wars thanks to the wisdom of the forces that pulled out on time to their respective environments.

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October 2008

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