Contagious Crime

Contagious Crime

Researchers investigating the "broken windows theory" of crime control found that people are twice as likely to steal from a graffiti-covered mailbox as from one that's pristine.

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The source: “The Spreading of Disorder” by Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg, in Sciencexpress, Nov. 20, ­2008.

One of the great strengths of the “broken windows theory” of crime control is its appeal to so many ­lawn-­mowing, ­graffiti-­scrubbing, ­litter-­bin-­using Americans. They believe that order and cleanliness are cornerstones of urban safety and that promptly fixing small things such as broken windows sends a social signal and prevents bigger problems such as ­break-­ins and thefts. Sociologists have cast serious doubt on some of the most extravagant claims for this ­crime-­fighting technique, for instance, that it is responsible for the dramatic reduction in New York City’s crime rate in the mid-1990s. But criticism has slid off the theory like water off an unbroken windowpane. Now researchers in the Netherlands have put the theory to some ingenious ­tests.

Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg of the social science faculty at the University of Groningen attached annoying “Happy Holidays” flyers to the handlebars of bicycles parked in an alley with a big “No Littering” sign on the wall. No trash can was provided. When the alley walls were pristine, 67 percent of the bicyclists took the flyer with them to dispose of properly. When the same area was scribbled with graffiti, only 31 percent did.

The researchers conducted an experiment with an envelope, allowing it to protrude out of a mailbox with a five-euro bill visible through the clear window showing the address. When the mailbox was free of graffiti, 13 percent of passersby pocketed the money. When it was covered with graffiti, 27 percent did so. In another experiment, the research­ers partially blocked the en­trance to a parking lot with a temporary fence. Customers were ordered by the parking lot’s owner not to lock their bikes to the fence and to walk about 220 yards to an alternate entrance. When four nearby bikes were clearly not locked to the fence, 73 percent of the people walked the extra distance; when the bikes were locked to the fence, in violation of the posted order, only 18 percent ­did.

The researchers found that the more Groningen residents saw examples of illegal or improper behavior, the more they violated other rules. Signs of previous “inappropriate behavior” such as graffiti or broken windows led to other such acts, including littering or stealing, the authors write. Each new example of ­anti­social activity undermined the general goal of doing the right ­thing.

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