Sunday, May 2, 2010

Stop Doing That!

Should you ever get that uncontrollable urge to commit a senseless act of vandalism, and if you would prefer not getting caught in the act, you might want to select a crime-safe neighborhood -- not one that’s safe from crime, but safe for crime.

Suppose, for example, you would like to throw a rock through a window, for no other reason than to enjoy the sound of the breaking glass. Here’s a helpful tip: Find a building that already has a few broken windows. The chances are pretty good that nobody cares very much about that building, because if someone did, the windows would have been fixed.

You probably have a good idea where to find that building -- that perfect target. You drive or walk through the neighborhood, passing by littered sidewalks and graffiti covered buildings, until you get to your building. You scan the remaining intact windows, until you settle on your window. You nervously pick up a rock, aim it, and smash! You’ve done it.

You have the urge to run as fast as you can and flee the scene of the crime, but something tells you to relax. It’s as though the neighborhood is trying to speak to you, trying to send you a signal. Go ahead and break another window. Take your time. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees you.

Relax. Nobody cares.

Nobody will chase you away. Nobody will call the cops. This is a safe neighborhood. As you get to know it better, you realize that this is a good place for fulfilling other desires. Would you like to buy drugs or a stolen gun, or find a prostitute? Or, perhaps you would like to do something much worse.

The Broken Windows theory was first presented in a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly, written by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, and it was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, in his best seller, The Tipping Point, subtitled: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Gladwell’s The Tipping Point tells us that trends in crime, like trends in business, politics, and fashion happen because “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” Bad behavior can be contagious. One broken window, left unrepaired, will invite another. A broken neighborhood beckons those who thrive on disorder.

By 1992, crime in New York City had become an “epidemic.” There were 2,154 murders and 626,182 violent crimes. There were neighborhoods where residents dared not go out after dark.

But contained within this Broken Windows theory, there is ample room for optimism. With the right medicines, an epidemic can be fought and stopped in its tracks, and that’s what happened in New York City. By 1997, murders dropped 64 percent and crimes were cut in half. Life after dark returned to some of the sickest neighborhoods.

What caused this rather amazing turn about? Well for one thing, Broken Windows criminologist, George Kelling went to New York, where he was allowed to test his theory. And so began a story of how stopping small bad things made a very big difference.

He was first hired as a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority, where the subways of New York became his laboratory. He would have no trouble finding bad guys to use as lab rats. The mammoth, decaying subway system was infested with them. David Gunn, the new Transit Authority director was a fan of Kelling’s theory.

With so many serious crimes being committed, where would Kelling and Gunn begin? Would they logically start by targeting the system’s most dangerous predators -- murderers, rapists, and armed robbers? No, they would not.

They would begin by cleaning up the “neighborhood.” Mission number one: graffiti. In the 1970s and 1980s, graffiti-covered subway cars were part of the scenery for millions of daily riders.

Graffiti never killed, injured or robbed anyone, but it did send an ugly and intimidating message: We own these cars and you are powerless to stop us.

Since transit cops could not even begin to guard the fleet of over 6,000 cars, graffiti vandals knew when and where to strike. Some would spend days spray painting their elaborate coded messages on the side of a car. One prominent “artist” was known for covering entire trains.

Finding a prevention for the graffiti virus seemed unlikely, so instead Kelling and Gunn came up with a possible cure -- taking the reward out of the art making. They ordered the cleaning up or painting over of all the graffiti-covered cars. They instituted a strict policy that any car stained with graffiti would be taken off line and not returned to service until it had been cleaned.

It worked.

Deprived of the enjoyment of seeing their work, as well as the enjoyment of seeing its effect on their enormous captive audience of subway riders, the spray paint artists began moving on to other hobbies and careers.

Mission number two: fare-beaters. The Transit Authority hired William Bratton to be its new chief of police. Like Gunn, Bratton was a disciple of George Kelling and a true believer of his Broken Windows theory.

Upon entering the subway, riders were required to insert a token in order to move through a turnstile.

Bratton observed an alarming number of scofflaws who simply jumped over the turnstiles or forced their way through them. It didn’t make sense for cops to arrest them. Arrests resulted in too many lost hours transporting the offenders to the police station, and too much time processing their paperwork -- all for a $1.25 crime.

But the fare-beating was contagious. Some people who witnessed it began doing it themselves. And, it sent another one of those bad messages about who had their way with the system, and who was powerless to stop them.

So Bratton ordered the arrest of all fare-beaters. Once over the turnstile, they’d be grabbed, brought to a holding area, in full public view, where they would be handcuffed to each other, in a “daisy chain,” and held there until the cops had a full catch.

Soon, the experiment began yielding breakthrough findings. Some of the lab rats carried concealed weapons. What exactly would they be used for? Some of the lab rats had outstanding warrants, and/or lengthy criminal records. What might they be planning on the day of their arrest?

You can guess the end result of this experiment. Incidents of fare-beating sharply declined, and so did the subway crime rate.

The new mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani appointed William Bratton police commissioner of New York City, and Bratton immediately began applying Broken Windows remedies to the city’s crime epidemic.

Broken windows were repaired. Littered sidewalks, streets, and vacant lots were cleaned up. Perpetrators of small crimes, like public drunkenness, urinating in public, and aggressive panhandling were arrested. A new signal was being sent. If you break a window here, someone who sees you will call the cops, and the cops will respond.

When the epidemic ended, Rudolph Giuliani graciously accepted the credit and easily won re-election as mayor.

The Broken Windows theory is not universally accepted. There are those who say that we can’t be certain that New York’s crime epidemic would not have ended on its own, as a natural result of an aging population (fewer trouble-making teenagers), and a sharp decline in the use of crack cocaine.

There are some very big theories for which truth is in the eye of the beholder. You will never convince a hardcore Creationist that Darwinism is provable, and you will never convince certain criminologists that Broken Windowism is gospel. But to those of us who draw upon our own observations and experiences, within our own neighborhoods, as well as the many neighborhoods we have passed through, there is not the slightest doubt. Gospel it is.

So when I hear about a specific crime -- one so disturbing that it gets under my skin -- I first look at the neighborhood where that crime took place. A neighborhood can be as big as the New York subway system, or as small as a small town high school.

South Hadley, Massachusetts is less than two hours from where I live. I don’t need to go there, nor do I need to see the building. I’m sure it looks like any other high school. I assume the grounds are well maintained, the hallway and classroom floors are kept polished, and the windows sparkle.

And I know that as neighborhoods go, this one was rotten. How else would you describe a neighborhood that allowed so many little, but nasty crimes to be committed against one of its most defenseless residents?

The new girl in town was attractive, vivacious, and from another country. She got involved with the captain of the football team. His old girlfriend took offense. She got involved with another one of the “popular” boys. His old girlfriend took offense. These girls ran in a pack and the pack decided to teach the new girl about the hierarchy.

Their initial lessons were rather mild. She was warned to “stay away from people’s men.” By then, her brief relationships with “those men” were over and those boys obediently took their places in the pack. The she-wolves dominated and the gang took on a personality of its own.

The attacks on the younger outsider took place over a period of several months.

One of girls entered a classroom and called her a slut for all to hear, including a teacher. On a day when she sought refuge in the school library, one of them scribbled vicious graffiti next to her name on the sign-in sheet. She was accosted in the hallways, and sometimes hid in the girls bathroom toilet stalls. She was threatened with being beaten up after school, and in vain pleaded with a teacher to be allowed to go home early.

The gang seemed to be able to attack at will. January 14th -- the final day -- was worse than all the others, and the closing bell brought no relief. One of them drove by her as she walked home from school, and hurled a drink can at her. By this time, the gang had to have thought: We can do anything and they are powerless to stop us. How intoxicating that realization must have been!

And when it was learned that on that final day, that she had gone into her home and hanged herself, we can only imagine the high-five celebration of a job well done. One of them said it perfectly on the dead girl’s Facebook page, with one simple word: “Accomplished.”

Maybe that word, more than any other scrap of evidence prompted the district attorney to bring charges against the individuals who so successfully tormented the girl to death. The names of the tormenters -- at least the most prominent -- are now known to all of us. They presumably have numerous court dates ahead of them. Their futures are, thankfully, not rosy.

But while most of the mean-teens have, in essence, been handcuffed together in a daisy chain, and displayed on a very public stage, other players are conspicuously absent.

Where are the adults?

Schoolmates described the organized attacks on the new girl as being “common knowledge,” yet when the crime first caught the attention of investigating reporters, no members of the school administration or faculty were aware of what had been blatantly going on, under their noses. Really?

The district attorney found this to be a lie, but concluded that nothing the adults-in-charge did rose to the level of criminal behavior, and that no case against them would hold water. The girl’s mother had gone to the school and appealed for help. It’s there on the record. More is being added to that record. Teachers and administrators are being called out.

The community now asks the famous twin questions:

What did they know?


When did they know it?

I don’t need to ask Mr. Kelling, Mr. Gladwell, Mr. Gunn, and Mr. Bratton what they think about this. Windows broke. People, responsible for fixing them, allowed them to stay broken. Message to the gang: Relax. Go ahead and do it again. Nobody will stop you.

Here, you are safe.


  1. A very revealing telling to your post. The first thought going through my mind involving the graffiti and the fare-beaters was the WHY it was being allowed, obvious in front of the noses of those in authority, but they took a backseat approach to the problems since it seemed too much trouble to do anything about it.

    A sad thing when it takes the death of a girl to further illustrate that a broken neighborhood stays broken until someone replaces the windowpane.

  2. Another thought provoking post Bruce. I hear what you're saying, but the issues are really too complex to be covered in a few comments. Suffice to say, something has to be done, and sooner rather than later. Whether politicians or, we as a society, truly have the stomach for it, remains to be seen.

  3. There are broken windows and graffiti-equivalents all over our schoolyards and social networking sites. We had a 10 year-old hang himself in the boy's bathroom of his GRADE SCHOOL here in North Texas recently. Kind of wonder where this all goes next - I don't suppose there are enough Brattons to go around, huh? Great post, always worth the wait, sir. EFH

  4. Fabulous "article", as usual Coltin. Truth be told, I don't read the newspapers much and an article has to be particularly well written and engaging to hold my attention. This is a wonderful marriage between information and a call to arms.
    I have never heard of the Broken Windows theory, but I am now eager to explore it myself. Thank you.

  5. Not only our education 'system' failed this girl, but the parents of the offending teens especially should feel ashamed for allowing this to go on. In a separate case the court exonerated a parent because 'internet bullying is not a real crime.' That, I think, sends a very wrong message to all kids, and paints a very scary picture of our future. I need to send this to the major of Oakland--the city with top crime rate in our area.

  6. This is a very important post. When my daughter was in high school she had two girls who made her life miserable. One day they followed her home and instead of her they got me. I read them the riot act and said if I ever heard of them calling my daughter a name, I was going straight to their parents. I explained that they had just met the Mother Tiger, and she was one nasty character, if she needed to be. I also explained that their mother was probably exactly the same way. They were both crying by the time they left. The result was that one of the girls befriended my daughter, and the other moved on.

    The next incident involved a boy, known to bully everyone - including girls. When he attempted to manhandle my daughter, I called the principal and explained that my husband was talking to our attorney as we spoke. They suggested taking my daughter out of their mutual class. I said over my dead body. They would not be sending THAT message! We were prepared to go after the parents in court. The result? The boy was told to stay away from my daughter, and if he didn't, he was out of school for the year. Which meant he would not graduate. He complied.

    Your point here is exactly what happened in that school. A parent says there will be nasty consequences if that sort of behavior continues. The parent says the school will be held responsible, and knows it could get ugly, and the word goes out to the administration and other teachers. One bad apple is not worth their time. They'll get rid of the apple. What would have happened if they bullies of this young girl had been kicked out of school the FIRST TIME it was noticed?

    Does it solve all the problems with these kids? No. But one baby step at a time...

    Thank you, Bruce. As always, you make us think.

  7. I'm not sure any of this applies in Florida. There are no “daisy chain” fare-beaters here. Our kids must all feel good about themselves. We're just loaded with self-esteem in the Sunshine State.

  8. As i live and breathe, a new Bruce post! And leading on from your 'who killed phoebe?' question in the coffee shop, i see.

    You write so well, Bruce. The way you lead into the Hadley murder (which it was, in essence) with the broken windows theory was pitched perfectly. And you are absolutely correct. The handling of this issue has been disgusting. When justice isn't served to the right people, you give these people a false sense of power- a sense of invinsibility. They probably will do it again because they think they can. It's so very sad. I really do hate the world we live in sometimes. We take one step forward and ten steps back.

    Great thought-provoking post, Bruce. I am always inspired. Lou :)

  9. better to do selfish acts of kindness and random anonymous good deeds!

  10. You are the only blogger I know who makes me stop breathing for a moment, either in shock or awe. I'm going to tell people about this post in the social networking places. I've said similar things to you before, but people ought to be opening their newspapers to see what you have to say.

  11. head is spinning. Your post is very well written and persuasive. As a former school administrator (and one time high school vice principal) I realize the complexities of the bullying issue. I'm forwarding the link to this article to my administrator friends. I hope it helps them see with fresh eyes.

  12. Bruce, my dear friend, when you write, regardless the topic, the point is driven home as deep as the very ocean depths.
    Indeed a time of accountability must be reached at all levels of our so called sophisticated society.
    When the greatest common thought, made popular by popular singing groups, is "snitches die", it is a time to ring bells of alarm, a great wake up call for sure.
    you are admired
    your friend as always,
    bob byford

  13. I'm so glad to see something new from you in this space. You're a wonderful writer.

    I subscribe fully to the broken windows theory. Having seen my childhood streets of Dorchester go slowly from upper middle class to a step above slum (and with some of my own actions having contributed to that decline) I know the truth.

    As for the sad case of Phoebe Prince, spot on.

  14. Plainolebob said it better than I could, Bruce. Your way of putting a point across is without equal - and that is not mere flattery.

    I had heard of the Broken Windows theory but hadn't read about it before in such detail. It makes perfect sense. Thank you for that. The second part of your post was chilling and desperately sad. Recently there were two events reported on in a Canadian national newspaper - one the Good Samaritan in New York who was stabbed to death when he tried to intervene in a dispute and was left to bleed to death, the other an elderly Toronto man who was the only person to stand up against an aggressive subway rider who was harassing someone else - and got beaten for his trouble, while others simply looked away. The Kitty Genovese effect, still. Where are the adults? Where are we all?
    But to be fair, there are probably many, many cases where people did intervene in a helpful and timely way, but these are not nearly as likely to be reported.
    As I have done right from the beginning, I thoroughly enjoyed your excellent writing and your rational, razor-sharp perspective. You're always worth the wait.

  15. If this is not a dire warning to all of us to have the courage to stand up for the underdog, I don't know what is...
    As for the Broken Windows theory, a pride in one's neighbourhood is bound to have a positive effect on the morale for everybody who witnesses it - teaching by parental example is lacking in many countries. We have enough yobs to prove it in UK, where some parents seem to think children 'bring themselves up' as if by magic, whilst family can ignore them.

  16. An excellent post. I was a kindergarten teacher and I firmly believe that jumping on little 'crimes' at an early age (and I'm not talking physical violence) is the answer. Once upon a time a policeman could give a child a little cuff for stealing an apple.And it worked.

  17. Reminds me of the saying, "if you give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile." Truth is that there are always signs... many "inches" along the way that we're too lazy or scared or whatever to really pay attention to. Love this post -I'm sure it will be a topic of conversation beyond the blogosphere now. Thanks!

  18. Bruce, I read your comment on Sarah's blog and decided to check you out.
    This is some really good reading, my friend! It is a perfect example of how, if things are left alone, they tend to go from bad to worse.

  19. I am here to thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment [I understand that we all have callers who do not-making it impossible to say thanks] Now that I am here and see so many of my bloggy friends have found you I am amazed that it has taken me so long.

    This is a very good post with an interesting take on a universal subject-so many of our cities towns and even quiet villages are blightd by the mindless vandalism of a few bored teens. Count me as a follower.

  20. A reminder that if you observe and say nothing you are guilty by condoning the action.

    And a reminder to a mother to cherish my daughters

  21. Such a sad state of affairs. I guess each one of us needs to do our tiny parts to try to turn things around.

  22. This was so well written. And informative, the "Broken window" analogy is such a great one that I think we can all live by, in may different areas of our life.

  23. I'd not heard of the broken window theory, but it makes sense. I've been saying for years that low-level social nuisance eventually becomes acceptable behaviour if not addressed.

    You've made a very important point here: that we should all be prepared to challenge antisocial behaviour, although we shouldn't expect to earn any kudos by doing so, at least in the short term.

  24. I've come across the broken window theory before and there does seem to be an awful lot of truth to it.

    You might find this post by another blogger I regularly read quite interesting:


So, what do YOU think?