Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Changing a Culture of Crime

Police are not very good at preventing crime. That doesn't mean they aren't important. When police patrols drop to zero during police strikes, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) points to scientific studies that show that "all hell breaks out." But the same NIJ report admits that "The strength of police effects on crime is generally moderate rather than substantial." Traditional police efforts help to prevent crime, but they don't have enough of an impact to transform a crime-ridden neighborhood into one that is safe and functional.

The problem is that police are generally reactive. They respond to reports of crime. That prevents some crime because potential criminals are afraid of being caught, but there are not nearly enough police to force everyone to obey the law or to catch every criminal. Police might also reduce the amount of crime committed in their immediate presence, but again, we don't have nearly enough police to be watching every street corner.

So, how do you transform a neighborhood that is a hot-bed of crime into a safe, law-abiding neighborhood? An even better question might be, "Why do some people who know they won't be caught by the police choose to obey the law?" If we could figure out why most people obey the law most of the time, it might help us find ways to create that same culture in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Malcolm Gladwell encourages us to look at crime the way we look at epidemics. Epidemics progress in a non-linear way. That means that small changes might have big results and big efforts might yield only small results. In his 1996 article and his 2002 book, both titled The Tipping Point, he points out small differences that can lead to huge changes in the rates of violent crime. 

For example, a Stanford professor placed two similar cars in two different neighborhoods - one was a ghetto and the other was affluent. In each case, the license plates were removed and the hood was propped open. The car in the ghetto was the subject of 23 separate vandalism episodes and was completely stripped within three days. The car in the affluent neighborhood was untouched after a week. But, once the professor broke one of the car's windows in the affluent neighborhood with a sledgehammer, the car in that affluent neighborhood was quickly destroyed. The broken window in the car was the tipping point - a small change that had a huge effect on the crime that the people in the neighborhood would commit.

The police in New York applied this "Broken Window" theory to graffiti and turnstile jumping in the subways. By focusing on these relatively minor violations they dramatically decreased the number of violent crimes on the subways. By removing these signs of disorder, they reached a tipping point in the signals of disorder that gave people permission to break the law.

Clayton Christensen identifies another cultural tipping point: religion. He relates a conversation he had with a scholar from China who came to the United States to study democracy and capitalism. He pointed out a necessary condition for democracy and capitalism to function properly: "Democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily obey your laws. . . . Capitalism works only when nearly all people voluntarily keep their promises." How do you teach people to voluntarily keep their promises and obey the law?

The Chinese scholar echoed Alexis de Toqueville when he said, "I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy  and capitalism.” Americans, traditionally, learned to be honest in church. They learned that even if the police did not catch them breaking the law, God would catch them. "Some of these teachings have become a part of our culture." But Christensen believes that religion is much better at teaching those values. "[I]s culture a stalwart, active protector of democracy’s enabling values? I don’t think so."

I believe that there is hope to prevent the breakdown of neighborhoods and communities. Little things like graffiti and broken windows can have a bigger effect than we might intuitively think. On the other hand, society has to teach people that they should voluntarily be honest and obey the law. Religion is by no means the only way to teach those principles, but it is very good at it. As our society becomes increasingly secular, we need to be sure that we are finding ways to preserve and teach our foundational values. We also need to be careful not to completely discount the value of religion in public discourse.


Michigan DUI said...


I believe that there is wish to avoid the malfunction of local areas and areas. Little things like graffiti and damaged ms windows can have a larger impact than we might naturally think. However, community has to show people that they should willingly be sincere and follow the law.

Michigan DUI

Joshua Baron said...

That's a great point. Cultural norms are much more powerful than law enforcement.

What do you think policy makers can do to encourage healthy and productive cultural practices? Have you seen any interventions that were effective?

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