THE WINDOWS THEORY OF CRIME
The June 29, 2007 Fargo Forum had an article about the new focus on combating drug trafficking in Cass County under the leadership of Sheriff Paul Laney.
We are taking drug trafficking enforcement efforts to a new level, explained Laney. This includes restructuring the sheriff’s department’s patrol division, requiring drug interdiction training of officers and ensuring they have the tools to curb drug trafficking. Laney recently applied for a grant to add a narcotics search dog to the department.
“It’s definitely something I feel very strongly about,” Laney said. “And I want to make a difference.”
The sheriff’s actions brought to mind the Windows Theory of Crime described in the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
Conceived by Criminologists James O. Wilson and George Kelling, this theory puts forth that crime is the natural outcome of disorder. For example: if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people who walk by will conclude that no one cares, that no one is in charge. More windows get broken and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.
This is an epidemic theory of crime that says crime is contagious--that it can begin with a broken window or experimentation with a new drug from somewhere else—and then spread throughout a community.
Gladwell wrote: “The Tipping Point in this epidemic isn’t a particular kind of person…. The impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not coming from a certain kind of person but from a feature of the environment (a rundown neighborhood or a drug-friendly highway system running through a county). An epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment.”
New York City tested this theory with stunning results in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
To change this environment, they enforced the smallest violations and changed the context of the community. First New York City transit police began to arrest those who engaged in fare-beating—an estimated 170,000/day didn’t pay for their subway ticket. Police previously ignored this crime because the value of a ticket ($1.25) was small; police felt it was a waste of time. They discovered a high percentage of fare-beaters had outstanding arrest warrants for serious crimes (1 of 7). Five percent carried illegal weapons. Making these arrests proved worthwhile and crime in the subway system went down dramatically.
New York City police then began enforcing minor quality of life crimes: graffiti, squeegee men, public urination, public drunkenness, and minor property damage violations—all went to jail. The serious crime rate fell dramatically and the environment changed.
If our police ignore small acts of drug use and minor violations of the law, if our family law judges ignore violations of court orders and cases of spousal abuse, if schools ignore acts of disrespect and bullying, if business leaders turn away from small ethical transgressions, then people believe that no one cares, that anything goes, and we go down the slippery slope to more serious issues; we have a culture of non-accountability. Conversely the proactive enforcement of laws for small crimes changes the context and environment of the community and we have a culture of accountability.
Sheriff Laney wants to close the window on drugs: “Don’t come through Cass County, because you will be caught. It’s not if but when. We’ll make room in the Cass County jail for drug traffickers.”
I look forward to future reports from Sheriff Laney.