Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sarawak Police and Broken Windows

Pak Bui's broken car window post "Crime, Punishment and Torture" on, reminds us of the “Broken Windows” anti-crime policy used by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, often cited as having reduced crime in the city and ‘cleaned’ it as if by waving a magic wand.

At gatherings of the world’s top cops, the "Broken Windows" theory is often a presentation topic. The Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton built his career on the “broken windows” theory. As New York’s police chief in the mid-1990s, he implemented a quality-of-life initiative to much acclaim, and he campaigned for the top job in L.A. on a “broken windows” platform. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino cracked down on such minor misdemeanor offenses as loud house parties, public drinking and improperly disposed trash, believing that these kinds of community-disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow.

Giuliani and Bratton acted on the insights of the Broken Windows theory to transform New York from one of the most dangerous cities in America to the safest big city in the country by treating minor crimes like vandalism, prostitution, and loitering like broken windows.

Giuliani and Bratton deployed police to where they were most needed using the CompStat (computer statistics) system. And instead of tolerating these crimes and showing weakness to criminals and would-be criminals, the police showed strength. They instituted a “zero tolerance” policy for so-called minor crimes. When other criminals witnessed this show of strength, they were deterred.

Citizens, meanwhile, felt safer walking the streets and taking the subway. They took more responsibility for their neighborhoods and helped make them safer as well.

In the New York case, restoring a sense of order to the streets meant that police didn’t have to spend all their time responding to actual crime. Their show of strength inspired citizens to care more for their own communities and deterred criminals from committing crimes in the first place.

According to the “Broken Windows” theory, every instance of disorder, however small - such as a window broken by vandals - should be dealt with firmly. This sends a message of law enforcement and leads to a reduction in more serious crime, the theory goes. The implementation of this involved the aggressive pursuit of those who committed ‘minor’ infractions, such as painting graffiti, panhandling and jaywalking.

The influential “Broken Windows” theory that was published in a 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson, a political scientist then at Harvard, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist. The theory suggests that a disorderly environment sends a message that no one is in charge, thus increasing fear, weakening community controls, and inviting criminal behavior. It further maintains that stopping minor offenses and restoring greater order can prevent serious crime.

In 2005, Lowell, USA, was being turned into a real life crime-fighting laboratory to test the theory.
Researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work - clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded. In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.

The results were striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the “broken windows” theory really works - that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.
The Lowell experiment offers guidance on what seems to work best. Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.

This seems to be a solid basis for a policing strategy that preemptively addresses the conditions that promote crime. In traditional policing, cops go from call to call, chasing their own tail.

I trust that PDRM does have an effective policing strategy. Any lessons we can learn from Rakan Cop?

1 comment:

MJ said...

Quite the exegesis of broken windows. I am currently conducting research for my ph.d. and am working with George Kelling. The broken windows theory is the main drive behind many police activities, whether or not they are even aware of it.

Michael Jenkins