Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Theory of The Broken Window

Let's start by reviewing the "broken windows" insight: It is basically that if a busted window in a building is left unrepaired, all remaining windows will soon be broken -- an unrepaired window signals that no one cares about property damage, or by extension the rule of law. Small problems threreby creat an atmosphere of chaos, leading to larger problem.

All this is dramatized by retelling a fascinating study conducted by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo:

He arranged to have an automobile without license plates with its hod up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by "vandals" within ten minutes of its "abandonment." The first to arrive were a familiy--father, mother, and young son--who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began--windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult "vandals" were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the "vandals" appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

Even folks who never read  "Broken Windows" are familiar with some of the remedies the two authors proposed: Windows should be fixed promptly; graffitiy should be cleaned up immediately; drunks should be rousted from street corners; police should crackdown on petty crimes like turn-style jumping in the subway; officers should walk rather than drive their beats, and otherwise engage in what we now call "communiy policing."

Should police activity on the street be shaped, in important ways, by the standart of the neighborhood rather than by the rules of the state?
Until quite recently in many states, and even today in some places, the police made arrest on such charges a "suspicious person" or "public drunkenness"--charges with scarcely any legal meaning. These charges exist not because society wants judges to punish vagrants or drunks but because it wants an officer to have the legal tools to remove undesirable persons from a neighborhood when informal efforts to preserve order in the streets have failed.

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