Rebecca Cook / REUTERS

Why community policing should focus on helping to resolve personal and domestic disputes, not signs of physical decay.

More than three decades ago, The Atlantic published a path-breaking essay that introduced the theory of “broken windows” to a broad audience. Its authors, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, advocated for a fundamental shift in law enforcement: away from simply apprehending criminals and toward mitigating the visual symbols of urban disorder like loitering, public drunkenness, panhandlers, “squeegee men,” run-down buildings, and litter- and graffiti-strewn neighborhoods. Their basic metaphor was captured in a simple phrase: “One broken window becomes many.”

The latest study by criminologists Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien and Robert J. Sampson, published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, adds yet more nuance to the critical debate that continues to surround broken windows theory today. The study poses three key questions: To what degree does disorder contribute to the ongoing decline of a neighborhood? If so, what features of it matter? And what are the major pathways that connect disorder to neighborhood decline and, ultimately, to crime?

To get at neighborhood disorder, the study uses unique “big data” consisting of more than one million Boston area 911 and 311 dispatches by location and neighborhood between 2011 and 2012. The authors used the 911 data to create four basic categories of neighborhood social disorder: panhandlers, drunks, and loud disturbances which signal public social disorder; public violence like fights (but which do not involve guns); private conflict like domestic violence and landlord-tenant trouble; and gun violence. They used the 311 data to identify two types of neighborhood physical disorder: private neglect, involving nuisances such as rodents in buildings, illegal rooming, or parking on lawns; and what they call public denigration, such as graffiti or the improper disposal of trash. They then linked these data to other data on the racial, ethnic, and economic makeup of neighborhoods from the American Community Survey, neighborhood cohesion from the Boston Neighborhood Survey, and homicide cases from the Boston Police Department.

The authors then used these data sets to examine the connections between those six factors—private conflicts, public social disorder, gun violence, public violence (again, fights that did not involve guns), private neglect, and public denigration—and how they ultimately shape neighborhood decline and/or homicide rates.

The diagram below shows a model of the connections between these factors based on a statistical analysis of the related data.

Here we see that public social disorder (panhandlers, drunks, and loud disturbances) can lead to public violence (fights not involving guns), then to gun violence, and, ultimately, to homicide. Private conflict (personal relationships) can also lead to public violence and private neglect (housing issues), as well as feed back into public social disorder. In other words, private disorder does appear to infiltrate public space over time, heightening conflict in private spaces—note the pathway that runs from private conflict to public violence to guns, and then back to private conflict. Furthermore, the direct link between public violence and later public social disorder is twice as strong as the link between public social disorder and subsequent public violence. Ultimately, public disorder, whether physical or social, ends up being weakly associated with predicted violence. Interestingly, we can see that broken windows in the traditional form of public denigration (e.g. graffiti, improper disposal of trash, etc.) does not appear to predict future disorder, and is not linked to any pathway.

The strongest and most salient connections appear to run from public violence on the one hand and private violence on the other to guns and, ultimately, to homicide rates. Guns have a substantial feedback loop to private conflict, private conflict loops back to public social disorder, and public violence loops back to public social disorder as well. Private conflict also loops back slightly to private neglect.

The authors’ key findings provide little support for the claim of broken windows theory that visual cues of neighborhood decay precipitate disorder and crime. As O’Brien and Sampson write, “Public denigration had no predictive power, belying the role of literal broken windows; and the link from public social disorder to later public violence was half the magnitude of the reverse pathway from violence to social disorder. Put more simply, both physical and social forms of public disorder were weakly predictive of future violence and disorder, if at all.” This is a big deal because these are the very things on which broken windows policing focuses.

They then advance an alternative theory where the key factor in crime and neighborhood decline is not visual signals of decay, but the social escalation of conflict. In their view, private conflict is by far the strongest factor in predicting everything from “increases in public social disorder, public violence, guns, and even physical disorder in privately owned spaces.” They point to the example of a domestic dispute over money or girlfriends spilling out onto the street, on a front stoop or in front of a local bar. Of course, this type of conflict has been difficult to measure in the past, since its root causes typically occur behind closed doors—or, rather, behind the broken windows that signal disorder to the public. In other words, crime and neighborhood decline are the result of the broader social escalation of private conflicts and disputes.

Whereas the broken windows model views crime as predatory (visual cues of disorder signal to a perpetrator that they can break the law with impunity), these findings suggest otherwise. “We know that most violent crime actually occurs between people who know each other—friends, family, neighbors, and other acquaintances,” O’Brien said via email.  “Violent crime is a product of the neighborhood’s social dynamics, something that bubbles up from within rather than invading from without.” The same goes for neighborhood disorder.

To provide further texture for their theory, the authors also developed an online interactive map of Boston neighborhoods that charts the various types of social and physical disorder. The map, which is part of an effort known as the Boston Area Research Initiative, updates the research data to 2014, and also enables visitors to overlay a variety of other data, including demographic and socioeconomic information from the American Community Survey, and the locations of a number of different services and amenities (e.g. supermarkets and subway lines). Areas with a higher prevalence of a certain form of disorder are shown in the darkest orange. Consider, for instance, the following representation of private conflict.

Here we see that private conflict is most prevalent in the Dorchester and Roxbury regions, and on the northern tip of the city in East Boston. According to O’Brien and Sampson’s study, these are the areas where we can expect the most disorder and crime in the future.

Ultimately, their study suggests that private conflict itself, not visual cues of neighborhood decay, is the key factor in neighborhood disorder and crime. This private conflict is different from the drunks and panhandlers associated with broken windows theory—it tends to operate less through visual cues and more by clearing the neighborhood of positive influences. If this is the case, it means policing would be better served by helping to limit and resolve personal disputes before they escalate into the broader public sphere as opposed to rounding up panhandlers, drunks, and the homeless.

“Aggressive policing of visual signs of disorder in public spaces may be treating the symptom rather than the fundamental cause of violence and neighborhood unraveling,” Sampson tells me via email. “Private conflicts, such as domestic fights or landlord-tenant disputes, can and do spill out into the public.”

But in many cases police aren’t well trained to handle domestic disputes. Proper training would require an investment in things like counseling, mental health treatment, domestic violence interventions, and housing dispute mediations, as well as increased collaboration between police officers and social workers, case managers, and other human and neighborhood services. “It is alluring to hope that concentrating on low-level offenses in public spaces will undercut more serious forms of crime; indeed, these are the very incivilities that the police are best equipped to handle,” adds O’Brien. “However, it appears that the more challenging work of engaging and de-escalating disputes among family, friends, and neighbors would bear more fruit. This would require a collaborative approach, as many cities have begun to do.”

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