As violent crime continues to rise inexplicably, it may be time to go against an idea proposed by longtime Harvard political scientist James Q Wilson. He was best known for his work in fighting crime that should be of interest to all Guyanese. The article, Broken Windows, which she co-authored, took a crossover position when it came out in 1982. Until then, everyone focused on the “root causes” of crime that had to be attacked. Crime would not decrease, it was said, and repeated, until we first tackled social and environmental causes like poverty, racism, poor housing, poor education, inequality, and so forth.
Unsurprisingly, the Police loved the idea: it basically freed them from reducing crime in absolute terms. Their stock answer to the stubborn, high and rising crime figures was: “that’s society’s fault; society made their mess. ”In Guyana, there is a continuing part of authority that insists on pushing the“ root causes ”of crime reduction. Let’s hope they look at Wilson’s “broken windows” alternative.
The broken window theory derived its inspiration and name from a widely observed phenomenon. “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree,” Wilson and Kelling wrote, “if a window in a building is broken and left unturned, all the remaining windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in degraded ones.
Window breakers do not necessarily occur on a large scale, as some areas are inhabited by determined window breakers while others are fond of windows; instead, one broken window without repairing is a sign that no one is worried, so cutting more windows costs nothing. (It’s always been fun.) ”What is true of windows, Kelling and Wilson argued, was also more generally the case of“ unintentional ”behavior in a community. Wilson said culture was important.
A stable neighborhood of families looking after their homes, thinking of each other’s children, and confidently wandering unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, into an inhuman and frightening jungle. A piece of property is left, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scrubbing rowdy kids; the children, affected, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers congregate in front of the corner store. The trader asks them to move; they refuse. Fighting is happening. Litter is accumulating. People start drinking in public; in due course, inebriate falls to the ground and is put to sleep. Panellists approach pedestrians.
At this point, it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and will adjust their behavior accordingly. They use the streets less often, and when on the streets remain separate from their comrades, moving with distorted eyes, silent lips, and hasty stairs. “Don’t get involved.”
For some residents, this increased atomization will be of little importance, as the neighborhood is not their “home”, but “the place where they live”. But it will matter to other people; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few trusted friends they arrange to meet. Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion.
Essentially, Kelling and Wilson argued that minor crimes, if spontaneous, lead to major crime and massive social breakdown. “Broken Windows policing” aims to allow a neighborhood to police itself and reduce crime. The role of the Police is to reduce fear through foot patrol, maintain order, and exercise officers discretion. In doing so, they would only respond to unprecedented demand in poor communities for the same sense of legitimacy enjoyed in affluent areas.
While our “community policing” and “neighborhood police” initiatives have adopted their names from “Broken Windows” policing, they have completely lost the essence of the latter.