Four years ago in Lowell, Ma., researchers, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, the Boston Globe reports, 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. Researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University meticulously recorded criminal incidents in each hot spot.
The results are 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 long-debated “broken windows” theory really works – that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.
Many police departments already use elements of the broken windows theory, or focus on crime hot spots. 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. Such evidence-based policing is essential, argues David Weisburd, a professor of administration of justice at George Mason University. “We demand it in fields like medicine,” Weisburd said. “It seems to me with all the money we spend on policing, we better be able to see whether the programs have the effects we intend them to have.” This study, he said, is “elegant” in how clearly it demonstrated crime prevention benefits. The broken windows theory was first discussed in a 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson, a political scientist then at Harvard, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist. They suggested that a disorderly environment sends a message that no one is in charge, increasing fear, weakening community controls, and inviting criminal behavior. Wilson and Kelling maintained that stopping minor offenses and restoring greater order can prevent serious crime.