Broken window theory

I was sorry to see a reference to the broken window theory of crime prevention in an email news update I received today from one my Seattle City Council members. Councilman Burgess is a fine man, and I’m looking forward to doing what I can to support his safer streets initiatives here in Seattle. So, this isn’t a criticism of him or his proposal in general. (Wikipedia summarizes the theory lists references for and against here.)

The broken window theory is easy. It seems like common sense, right? It’s easy to summarize, heck, you don’t even need to say more than “broken window theory.” Unfortunately, that’s probably the first warning sign of a mistaken idea — if it’s easy to grasp and seems like common sense it’s probably wrong. Or so watered down as to be as good wrong.

The broken window theory is just not supported as a crime prevention strategy. At best, it probably just barely impacts crime in a neighborhood. Even its positive affect may be more a matter of people being out, on the street, doing things around the house, and therefore aware of the doings in their vicinity. Also, people will be more likely to meet neighbors, which also aides safe streets.

That’s not to say it’s a bad idea. I think it’s great, but not for preventing crime. Let me cast it this way and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. If we “…consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.” I agree less litter is good. But, would a criminal decide to rob a restaurant because the street outside is littered? I’m skeptical. Crime does happen in good neighborhoods, and I seriously doubt a criminal gives a damn about litter, or peeling paint, or broken windows.

Why raise this if I respect Councilmember Burgess and support his goals? The problem I have is that by featuring a discredited theory, Councilmember Burgess has undermined my confidence in the rest of his proposal. I’ll be more wary and skeptical of everything proposed.

If there was one thing I can get across to kids I tutor it would be this: question what you think and why you think it. We collect many random “facts” that gain the force of obvious truth only because we neither examine the source or the facts. I, too, accepted the broken theory for years as common sense until a  neighbor mentioned it a year ago or so. I got to wondering why I so sure that was a sound theory, and so investigated it a bit.

By the way, you don’t need to drink eight glasses of water a day, either.

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