A reader wrote into Sean Kirsts weblog to praise him for another in a series of posts and articles about litter. The comment that got me going was this:
“The ‘Broken Window syndrome’ is well-known; it’s the little things, like litter, graffiti, abandoned cars and crumbling front porches that create the impression that bigger indiscretions will go unnoticed.”
The Broken Window theory certainly is well-known. People throw it into conversations and writings all the time. The problem is that most take it as the gospel truth, like this writer, that the theory explains how places such as NYC turned their cities around and reduced crime. It is an appealing theory–stop the turnstile jumpers in the subway, the squeegee men in the street and the loiterers in the park then, voila! Watch drug crime and violence plummet.
Unfortunately, this is one of the classic logical fallacies: post hoc ergo propter hoc. In English it means “If after, then therefore, because.” The fallacy is to believe if one event happens after another, then the first must be the cause of the second.
Yes, New York City cracked down on so-called “quality of life” violations. And yes, drug crime and violence also declined. Are the two connected? Increasingly, academics studying this issue are quite skeptical of “broken windows” policing.
The big-time bestseller Freakonomics by economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, point out many intertwined explanations for the reduction in drug crime and violence in NY City during the “broken windows” era–such as a reduction in number of young men of prime crime-committing age and more people in jail due to drug and gun laws.
In his book Illusion of Order, sub-titled The False Promise Of Broken Windows, University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt argues that Broken Windows has never been validated with research data and he himself lays out a case for its failure. His study of a 1990’s-era HUD program that relocated juvenile offenders from chaotic neighborhoods to stable neighborhoods showed that their rate of criminal activity remained the same in both neighborhoods.
And what have been the effects of Broken Windows on the ground? Ezekiel Edwards is a staff attorney for the Bronx Defenders, a nationally recognized organization of public defenders that has become a model of community-based advocacy for clients that are charged with crimes and for the communities they live in. He makes an eloquent case that its only practical effect has been harassment of poor and minority residents (as well as overloading an already burddened court system).
This whole debunking of Broken Windows also contributes to my belief that the continual discussion on litter control on Sean Kirst’s weblog is sort of beside the point. Crime wasn’t reduced solely by fixing broken windows. Litter will not be solved solely by sprucing up the interstate. What has worked locally in the fight to reduce litter? The bottle bill certainly took a large part of the waste stream off the streets. We should investigate in more large-scale methods to give people in this throw-away culture a reason to reduce, re-use and recycle. Couldn’t we investigate things such as the tax on fast food restaurants being tried in Oakland? Shouldn’t we invest more heavily in DPW crews, especially near known waste producers?