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Sunday, August 20, 2017

When Broken Windows Aren't Towed

The car was set ablaze by some arsonist for reasons that aren't generally known. Then it just sat there. The windshield was cracked. Portions of the body were melted and puddled on the ground. A camouflage duffel bag sitting in the back seat was visible from outside the car. After remaining there for a couple days, neighbors started submitting 311 reports to have it removed. It continued to sit there anyway.

The area where this car was torched is considered a "high crime" precinct. Despite this reputation, burned out or abandoned cars have long been a rarity as all of New York City has become safer and more orderly over the past several decades. Looking closely at this rare case is interesting, especially given the ongoing debates around the "Broken Windows" theory of policing.

The moniker comes from the 1982 article in The Atlantic, "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety" by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. This approach to order maintenance was adopted as a core principle of NYPD policing by William Bratton. The basic premise, as Bratton summarized Kelling and Wilson, is that "unaddressed disorder encourages more disorder. From that follows crime, then increasingly serious crime, and finally violence." Kelling and Wilson saw "public order" as the expectations of acceptable behavior defined by the local community, and advocate for the use of police to maintain that order.

The term "broken windows" was borrowed by Kelling and Wilson from a social science theory, and their article describes at length an experiment involving an abandoned car in The Bronx:
Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by "vandals" within ten minutes of its "abandonment." The first to arrive were a family—father, mother, and young son—who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began—windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult "vandals" were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the "vandals" appeared to be primarily respectable whites.
Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx—its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of "no one caring"—vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that "no one cares."
The experience with this recent car was very different. There were some actions that might have seemed to signal that "no one cares": the car was torched and then nobody bothered to remove it from our neighborhood's public space. Yet while it was sitting in The Bronx, nobody stripped the car. Nobody broke the window to steal the readily visible bag, even after sitting in plain view for weeks.

The truth of the matter is that people did care. Residents were routinely calling 311. People talked with the super in the building next to it to see if he had heard anything. In fact, what this incident communicated to the community was that their government didn't care.

Residents believed - probably correctly - that the City would not have left something so unsightly on the streets of the Upper East Side for so long. It also suggested that for all its "Broken Windows" rhetoric, the aggressive policing may really about something else. The NYPD made no effort to address this sign of disorder despite the repeated requests from the community.

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