September 11, 2001
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The op-ed page of today's New York Times carries a particularly pernicious article that runs under the headline "The Broken Windows Myth."
The article criticizes the "broken windows" theory of the police cracking down on quality-of life offenses like graffiti and aggressive panhandling. It says "There is little, if any evidence that the crackdown on squeegee men and graffiti scribblers has played much of a role in reducing crime in New York." It says the broken windows "approach to law enforcement diminishes trust between the police and the community, violates basic rights and scapegoats the homeless and other people we deem disorderly." And it contrasts the broken windows approach with the "very different style" of policing in San Diego -- "a problem-solving, community oriented approach."
Well, since the headline of the article is "The Broken Windows Myth," and the article refers repeatedly to "broken windows," you might think that a law professor or a Times editor would have paid some attention to where that phrase came from. If you did think that, you would be wrong. In fact, this article manages to mischaracterize the broken windows theory and attack it while never even bothering to mention who coined the phrase and where and in what context. Ordinarily one might chalk this up to carelessness or lack of generosity, but in this case, the mischaracterization of the original theory is so egregious that it almost is enough to make a reader suspect that the op-ed writer is hoping that the Times readers never read the original "Broken Windows" article. Because if they did read it, they would realize that today's op-ed piece is wrongheaded in almost every way possible.
The original article, "Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety," was written by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It is available free online at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/crime/windows.htm , and Smartertimes.com highly recommends it to anyone who hasn't already read it. It is one of the most brilliant articles ever written.
In fact, if you go read the original Broken Windows article, you can see that virtually every complaint made in today's Times article on "The Broken Windows Myth" is bogus.
Today's Times article complains that the practice has not been effective in fighting crime. But Professors Wilson and Kelling never claimed it would directly fight crime.
Here's what they wrote in The Atlantic, based on a study of policing in Newark, N.J.: "Five years after the program started, the Police Foundation, in Washington, D.C., published an evaluation of the foot-patrol project. Based on its analysis of a carefully controlled experiment carried out chiefly in Newark, the foundation concluded, to the surprise of hardly anyone, that foot patrol had not reduced crime rates. But residents of the foot patrolled neighborhoods seemed to feel more secure than persons in other areas, tended to believe that crime had been reduced, and seemed to take fewer steps to protect themselves from crime (staying at home with the doors locked, for example). Moreover, citizens in the foot-patrol areas had a more favorable opinion of the police than did those living elsewhere. And officers walking beats had higher morale, greater job satisfaction, and a more favorable attitude toward citizens in their neighborhoods than did officers assigned to patrol cars. These findings may be taken as evidence that the skeptics were right- foot patrol has no effect on crime; it merely fools the citizens into thinking that they are safer. But in our view, and in the view of the authors of the Police Foundation study (of whom Kelling was one), the citizens of Newark were not fooled at all. They knew what the foot-patrol officers were doing, they knew it was different from what motorized officers do, and they knew that having officers walk beats did in fact make their neighborhoods safer."
As for the claim that the broken windows approach "diminishes trust between the police and the community, violates basic rights and scapegoats the homeless and other people we deem disorderly," that, too, is contradicted by both common sense and the evidence of the Newark foot patrol experiment. And Professors Kelling and Wilson addressed these points, too, in their original article back in 1982. They wrote: "Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community."
Professors Kelling and Wilson also addressed the issue of "racial divisions," which today's Times article also blames on broken windows practices. They wrote back in 1982, "how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry? We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question. We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority. That limit, roughly, is this--the police exist to help regulate behavior, not to maintain the racial or ethnic purity of a neighborhood."
To the extent that any of the complaints in today's Times article are valid, they demonstrate not problems with the original broken windows theory but with the implementation and distortion of it by police and politicians. In New York, in particular, foot-patrol, a cornerstone of the original broken-windows theory, has been de-emphasized. But the fact that there are problems with implementation -- and on the whole the improved order in the city has not been problematic but a great boon to the economy and to residents -- doesn't mean broken windows is a myth or that police should stop trying to maintain order, as the Times article suggests.
Shark Attack: Until today, the New York Times has been dismissive of the idea that a recent wave of shark attacks may be related to federal limits on shark fishing that went into effect in 1993. On September 5, 2001, the Times mentioned the argument, made by Sean Paige, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, only to reject it: "But Sonja V. Fordham, a shark fisheries expert at the Ocean Conservancy, a private group in Washington, said Mr. Paige had exaggerated both the rise in attacks and evidence that devastated shark populations were rebounding. 'This is an irresponsible argument' made to foster the shark-fishing industry, Ms. Fordham said. 'There's no basis for it in fact.'"
A New York Times editorial on September 6, 2001, took the same line, ridiculing Mr. Paige's argument: "at present, the idea of an environmentally driven shark-attack trend is no more founded in fact than the hypothesis of one conservative commentator that the whole thing is the fault of Bill Clinton, or at least of tighter shark-fishing limits passed during his presidency."
So it sure is interesting to see the article in the Science Times section of today's New York Times, which asserts, "it is possible that federal rules and commercial fishing practices are interacting in unexpected ways to create new dangers in coastal waters." Today's article goes on to acknowledge that "Although many scientists have publicly questioned" Mr. Paige's theory, "a few have voiced support." The Times today quotes "a research biologist in Miami for the National Marine Fisheries Service" as expressing support for Mr. Paige's theory.
Now that the Times news coverage has adjusted itself on this issue, it will be interesting to see whether the editorialists are going to be willing to retract their ridicule and acknowledge that regulation may have played a role.
Keeps You Going: The business section of today's New York Times carries the end of an article about Wrigley, the gum company. Guess the editors thought this article was so good when it originally ran in full back on August 28, 2001, that they decided it was worth running again.
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