Simulated Disorder in the Netherlands

While the broken windows theory of crime control has much intuitive appeal, empirical support has always been a bit thin. Now researchers in the Netherlands have conducted a series of experiments which seem to confirm the core hypothesis that visible signs of low-level disorder increase the likelihood that people will violate behavioral norms. The experiments showed that disorder not only increased the possibility that individuals would engage in mildly anti-social behavior (like littering), but also more serious criminal behavior. As described by the Economist:

The most dramatic result . . . was the one that showed a doubling in the number of people who were prepared to steal in a condition of disorder. In this case an envelope with a €5 ($6) note inside (and the note clearly visible through the address window) was left sticking out of a post box. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did. Even if the post box had no graffiti on it, but the area around it was littered with paper, orange peel, cigarette butts and empty cans, 25% still took the envelope.

My own reaction to these experiments is mixed. On one hand, of course, it is satisfying to have empirical data that tends to confirm a hypothesis that has helped shape policing over the course of the last 25 years. But other empirical work tends to disprove the broken windows theory, most notably an analysis of crime data in New York City over a ten-year period, as well as results from the Moving to Opportunity experiment, in which individuals from areas with high levels of social disorder moved to more advantaged and orderly communities.

A quick survey of the blogosphere suggests that the headline for the Netherlands experiment is “Broken Windows Works!” or some similar variant. A survey of all the empirical evidence, however, suggests that the story is not nearly that tidy. Moreover, as I’ve previously written on this site, many unanswered questions remain, such as whether constraining disorder is the best use of limited police resources, or how the police choose their targets in a public order campaign, or whether addressing disorder can ever mean more than moving it to a less visible place.

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