By Eric Klinenberg, Atlantic
August 23, 2018
“Broken Windows” is one of the most cited articles in the history of criminology; it’s sometimes called the Bible of policing. Since the nineteen-eighties, cities throughout the world have used Wilson and Kelling’s ideas as motivation for “zero tolerance” policing, wherein officers monitor petty crimes, such as graffiti, loitering, public intoxication, and even panhandling, and courts severely punish those convicted of committing them. “If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of the big things,” the former Los Angeles and New York City police chief William J. Bratton has said. (Bratton has also applied the theory in overseas consulting work.) In practice, this meant stopping, frisking, and arresting more people, particularly those who live in high-crime areas. It also meant a spike in reports that police were unfairly targeting minorities, particularly black men.
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Debates about the theory ignored the two problems at the root of its story, jumping straight to the criminal behavior. We got “broken windows,” not “abandoned property,” and a very different policy response ensued.
But what if the authors—and the policymakers who heeded them—had taken another tack? What if vacant property had received the attention that, for thirty years, was instead showered on petty criminals?
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To this day, most policies that aim to reduce crime focus on punishing people rather than improving places. The President has called for a national “stop and frisk” police program; the Attorney General wants more severe sentencing; advocates of “law and order” are resurgent. We invest little in housing and neighborhood amenities like libraries, senior centers, and community gardens, which draw people into the public realm and put more eyes on the street. And we spend even less to address criminal “hot spots”—the empty lots and abandoned buildings that, according to Branas’s team, account for fifteen per cent of city space in America.
What the Philadelphia studies suggest is that place-based interventions are far more likely to succeed than people-based ones. “Tens of millions of vacant and abandoned properties exist in the United States,” Branas and his team wrote. Remediating those properties is simple, cheap, and easily reproducible. What’s more, the programs impose few demands on local residents, and they appear to pay for themselves. “Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.00 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested,” the team wrote. It’s not only more dangerous to leave the properties untended—it’s more expensive.