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Friday August 22nd 2014

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The Local—I’m No Expert on Crime

From the Opinion of a Monday Morning Quarterback
by Edwin Banacia

Is it just me or lately has crime become a serious problem in Pensacola? Of course, I’m too lazy to look up the statistics to see if my observation is indeed true. But, then again, I’m not a reporter and this is a so-called opinion piece. In other words, since it is just my opinion, this is the equivalent of saying, “With all due respect,” right before I insult someone. So in advance, if I’m indeed wrong, I apologize. In the event that I am right and crime is indeed on the rise in our community, at the least, my observations could be beneficial. If not, the next time, I promise to write about my new Golden Retriever puppy. Everyone loves a good puppy story.

So back to gloom and doom—the supposed rising crime rate in Pensacola. At first glance, I just assume as the economy goes, the crime rate goes. But, the fact is, the economy really isn’t in much worse shape this year as it was a few years ago. So after watching the local news recently, I recalled a book I read some time ago. I went back and read a few chapters again. Specifically, “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, a marketing book about social epidemics, but there’s a great chapter in there about the Power of Context. It discussed a dramatic, sharp decline in the crime rate in New York City during the early 1990s. And using the principals of the book, it explains the decline. If you were to look at the crime rate on a chart, it would almost be a vertical decline and that’s pretty dramatic in the sense of social epidemics. Usually, crime rates decline over time. The book investigates several theories in an effort to explain the sensational decline.

Gladwell includes an excerpt from the autobiography of William Bratton, the former chief of the New York City Transit Police. It describes what it was like riding a New York City subway in 1984. The experience was disclosed as such:

“After waiting in a seemingly endless line to buy a token, I tried to put a coin into a turnstile and found it had been purposely jammed. Unable to pay the fare to get into the system, we had to enter through a slam gate being held open by a scruffy-looking character with his hand out; having disabled the turnstiles, he was now demanding that riders give him their tokens. Meanwhile, one of his cohorts had his mouth on the coin slots, sucking out the jammed coins and leaving his slobber. Most people were too intimidated to take these guys on: ‘Here take the damned token, what do I care?’ Other citizens were going over, under, around or through the stiles for free. It was like going into the transit version of Dante’s Inferno.”

But by the end of the decade, crime had dropped by over 75 percent in New York. So, what happened in 1990? Gladwell explains, “Did all the criminals just decide to stop their lives of crime? Did the whole city get a population transplant? How did tens of thousands of people all of a sudden stop committing crimes?  The answer lies in the Power of Context.”

Ever heard of the Broken Window theory? Criminologists Wilson and Kelling developed it. Basically it goes like this: If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will assume that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken and the sense of anarchy will spread from building to building to the street which it faces, sending a signal to all that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.

So what did New York City do? Without going into all the details, in 1984 every single subway car was smelly, dirty, covered from top to bottom with graffiti and not heated in the winter or cooled in the summer. The city bought new subway cars. But they knew if they put them on the line, the same thing would happen. So, they hid at the train yards and watched. The graffiti artists would come in at night and paint the trains white. The next night they’d come back and outline their sketch. The following night, they’d come back and color in their murals. And, on the third night, right after they colored it in, the transit workers would come out with paint and cover over their murals right in view of the exhausted graffiti artists. The message was clear. Spend three days of your time working on this and in ten minutes, we’ll cover it and your art and effort will never see the light of day. Eventually, the graffiti artists moved on to other areas. New trains were put into service and they were kept clean. The transit company was religious about it. Meanwhile, the police focused on fare beaters. They stopped the panhandling on the line. In other words, they fixed the broken windows. By 1990, crime had dropped throughout the city dramatically.

Gladwell explains that this is a great example of the Power of Context. The New York City Transit Police changed the context of the situation.

Now I’m sure some of you would point to social inequalities like poverty and long embedded psychological problems when it comes to the behavior of criminals, and I wouldn’t argue with you. All of those things need to be addressed. But, these examples, Broken Window and Power of Context theories, suggest something else. They allude that the criminal doesn’t necessarily act out of fundamental, congenital reasons, but is actually someone who is responding to his environment. This person is extremely sensitive to cues, per se, based on his perception of the physical world around him. In other words, this behavior is more a function of social context. It doesn’t discount completely that social factors play a role in crime, but the Power of Context is saying that what can really make a difference are the small things.

Like I said earlier, I’m no expert criminologist nor am I a psychiatrist. I just thought the example was interesting and quite a radical idea. So I started to think about Pensacola. Where do the majority of the violent crimes in our beloved city happen?  I wonder how many broken windows are in those neighborhoods.

About “The Local”: Ed is a local bar owner, local bar patron and former music industry executive.

Are you a local with a story to tell? If so, email your story to joani@inweekly.net & she might be in contact (if it’s good enough to get her attention).