Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The return of broken windows and other stopgaps

Broken windows theory, often confused with CPTED, is a police strategy to cut crime
- photo by Smallbones, Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

Last year, in frustration over increasing incidents of violence, the NYPD returned to their broken window theory to cut crime, a much-criticized program from the past.

Can cops really prevent crime? There is a big difference between responding to emergencies and apprehending offenders, versus preventing crime. They are not the same. 

If you ask the Frustrated or the Cynical, they say no! Crime goes up and down regardless of police actions. Even people like urban writer Jane Jacobs said that police, while important, are not the main way to prevent crime – people in the community are. 

If you ask the Supporters or the Optimistic, they say yes! Problem-oriented policing seems to cut crime, at least in some cases. But it is a rare strategy in policing nowadays.

What of other strategies? Consider predictive policing and especially hotspot policing, a tactic that goes back decades. When I was a cop we called this showing-the-flag in troubled areas. Flag showing put cops into high crime areas at just the right time.

Some researchers, like criminologist David Weisburd, are big hotspot policing advocates. He points to research that shows early success. Still, there are plenty of questions. When Denver police tried it, they cut gun crime in 3 of 5 hotspots, but citywide gun crime increased anyway.


What about crime prevention officers? Crime prevention specialists do some good work, but they are a tiny fragment of the total police roster. They split their time between a myriad of disconnected programs and they seldom work within the operational goals of a neighborhood-based safety plan. 

What about technology? The research is not convincing. CCTV in public places, for example, has a spotty record with dubious results. We have blogged on CCTV before. We've also blogged on the problems with Shotspotter Acoustic Gun Detection technology. The NYPD domain awareness system is the latest technology in this regard. Unfortunately, crime in NY is still increasing.

What about tough-on-crime like zero-tolerance enforcement, stop-and-frisk tactics, and broken windows policing? Does it work? The research is inconclusive. In fact, parts of the NYPD stop-and-frisk strategy were ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. 


Tough-on-crime programs rely on what criminologists call deterrence theory – strict prison sentences, mandatory sentencing, and other punishments. Deterrence theory has one of the longest research histories in criminology. It shows that deterrence does not prevent much crime! It might work on minor infractions like speeding. But for hardcore criminals, substance addicts, gang members, and others, it does little. 

Jail is also part of deterrence theory and while it may incapacitate an offender for the duration of the sentence, without intensive programming (like Colorado’s horse whisper program) and post-release supports, results are discouraging. If a convict exits prison and returns to the same blight, poverty, and desperate conditions that led him or her to prison in the first place, not much will change. 

Great programs exist but they are too few and too underfunded. 

Fire prevention...not the same as crime prevention. But close enough!
- photo Hungryogrephotos Creative Commons


In the final analysis, stop-and-frisk, hotspot policing, CCTV, tough-on-crime, and many others are little more than stopgaps. They calm the winds, but the hurricane continues. 

Fire prevention takes a whole different approach. Fire officials learned long ago that driving around blindly on random patrol waiting for the fire was futile. They might send fire specialists to places where fires often break out – fire hotspots (pardon the pun), and then dispatch the engines. But those are nothing but stopgap measures.

Instead, they learned about the root causes of fire, the materials, and the types of situations where fire was likely. They developed preventive education about risky situations, like smoking in bed. They created building codes with fire-resistant materials and regulations requiring extinguishers in new construction. That is how they prevent fire. They dug at the roots and used scientific knowledge about the causes.

Paradox: noun - par.a.dox [a statement that is self-contradictory or logically untenable] 


It may not be exactly the same as crime, but it is close enough! And that leads to the conclusion that all the stopgap measures above have one simple paradox: In order to work, those measures need already-committed crimes. There can be no crime hotspot unless existing crime already makes a place hot. Crime prediction is impossible unless you already have an existing pattern of crime from which to make your predictions.

The paradox gets even worse when you deploy stop-and-frisk, showing the flag, or tough-on-crime, all of which show up in the hotspots where poverty, inequities, blight, and fear already exist. Stopgap programs are unlikely to prevent those things that have existed for decades. You cannot prevent something that already exists. You can mitigate it once you discover it and stop it from recurring. That is all fine and good. But it is not prevention, per se. 

The fire people are right that to prevent something, you must understand and diagnose it. You must have a local, long-term plan with specific goals. 

This deeper and more comprehensive fire prevention method is more difficult with crime because the causes of crime are complex and multi-faceted. Of course, that is no excuse to stay confined within the walls of stopgap measures. There are more collaborative ways to build communities out of crime. 


One answer is to get the police to collaborate with neighborhoods on the kind of community-building we describe in SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhoods of Safety and Livability. This method has been well-established and previous books have outlined early versions, such as Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio’s Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival.

Another answer, also linked to SafeGrowth, is Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky’s Building Our Way Out of Crime. That too describes deeper ways out of stopgaps and towards more comprehensive prevention. 

Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky published their summary of community transformation. An abbreviated summary is at POP Center Library. The full book is available online

All this points toward one particular answer to the question: Can police prevent crime? There are ways for police to prevent crime and all of them start and end with collaborations directly with the community. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The streets of Mendoza

by Tarah Hodgkinson

In previous blogs, we have spoken about tree canopy and its correlation with reductions in not only heat, but also crime. Indeed, 3rd Generation CPTED now includes environmental sustainability as a central strategy for safer places. I recently experienced this firsthand during travel to South America.

One of the wonderful things about travel is the opportunity to see beyond your view of the world to another way of doing things. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to Mendoza. 

Mendoza is a city in Argentina home to one of the best wine regions in South America. Beyond the wine, the city itself is really interesting. Situated in the desert, Mendoza is subject to the extreme desert heat. To combat this, the streets are lined with trees. 

Indeed, the streets of Mendoza feel welcoming and engaging. You can instantly feel the difference in heat when you leave the treelined streets and enter one of the city’s many parks. 

This commitment to tree cover exists in the cities and also along the routes to the original olive farms and vineyards. This was done to protect the agricultural produce during transport so it wouldn’t spoil. It also protected the drivers. 

However, it wasn’t the tree canopy that really caught my attention, rather it was the infrastructure that supported the trees. Throughout the city, deep canals collect and supply water to the trees. These “acequias” were originally designed by the indigenous peoples of what is now known as Mendoza. Despite the destruction of much of the Indigenous peoples and culture by colonizers in the 16th century, the canal system remained. 

However, while the canals are imperative to supporting the survival of these trees, and contribute to the liveability of the city, they also pose a huge physical risk. This is because the canal system is wide open. 


In speaking with local residents about the canals, many told us stories about people walking home at night, missing a step, falling in, and getting hurt. They shared that this was often tourists, or people unfamiliar with the area, but after a few beers, the locals were just as susceptible.  But this risk seemed to be an accepted one, in order to maintain the trees. 

As someone trained to see the city in a particular way, I couldn’t believe that these canals weren’t covered with grates or something else that might protect people from falling in and getting hurt. Coming from North America, where liability is everything, it was interesting to be thrust back into another culture that prioritizes other values. 

It also reminded me that our western view isn’t necessarily the right one. For example, an extensive grate system is quite expensive and may not be achievable. Or perhaps they have agreed to trade one form of safety (physical), for another (heat exhaustion), with the acknowledgment that you can just look where you are going. Either way, the result is absolutely beautiful – albeit a little tricky to navigate. 

So, if you are heading to Mendoza, watch your step!