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Policing theory suggests fixing broken windows helps fix crime


When we think of policing, we don’t always think about psychology. One is academic; the other, relentlessly real-world. But many police departments, including San Francisco’s, assign patrols based on a psychological theory: The Broken Windows Theory.

Essentially, it says signs of urban decay encourage criminal behavior. The theory was developed in the early 1980’s by social scientists who argued that the way to address urban crime was to increase foot patrols and reduce signs of blight.

The theory was perhaps most famously used in New York City, which in the mid 1990’s increased its number of beat cops and adopted a zero-tolerance policy on crime. But here in San Francisco, his approach has been slower to catch on. In 2010 voters rejected a ballot measure that would have required the police department to put more cops on the street. Today, though, the SFPD is relying heavily on the broken windows theory to determine how they police high-crime neighborhoods like Bayview. 

At the corner of 3rd Street and Palou, people are sitting on benches in the plaza near a bus stop, laughing, smoking cigarettes and playing dominoes. It could be a gathering anywhere, except for the people standing in front of them: seven policemen. One on a bike, others on foot, a couple of them leaning against a parked patrol car, just talking to each other.

Sharif Maxey locks his car. He’s here running an errand. I ask him what he thinks about so many cops being around.  He shrugs and says, “I’m kind of conflicted with it. Some days it’s good to have them around, and then some days...It’s like we’re outside, but we are in jail. We may not be committing any crimes but it’s the pressure of having them behind you.”

It’s not just that they’re hanging around, Maxey says they’re getting in his face. He tells me that a few days ago, he pulled up into a housing development to visit his daughter.

"Narcs jumped out with their badges,” Maxey says, “Saying freeze!”  He asked them, “What am I freezing for?”

Maxey wasn’t doing anything illegal even though he does have a criminal record. The police told Maxey to stay out of trouble and pulled off. Maxey’s trying to be a better example for his daughter, and he wants her to grow up in a safe neighborhood, so, even if it compromises his rights, he says he gets it.

“I do appreciate the police though, they do come through and help us out,” he tells me.                    

A few blocks from the plaza is the Bayview Hunters Point police station. Patrol cars line the entrance of the building.  Sitting at his desk is Captain Robert O’Sullivan the commanding officer at Bayview Hunters Point station.

O’Sullivan’s district has the highest amount of crime in San Francisco, and it’s getting worse. Robberies and shootings are up 16 percent, arrests up 31 percent, and firearm arrests are up at least 50 percent since this time last year. I ask him about the Broken Windows theory – something he’s been thinking a lot about lately.

“A theory is a theory,” O’Sullivan tells me, “to me, it’s common sense. When problems are small you address them, it’s important to stay on top of things not let them spiral out of control.”

The Captain gives me an example: “Two people were inebriated and ended up stabbing each other. Had the property not been available to those people, officers wouldn't find the man bleeding out front. For me it’s common sense. It was abandoned, it was left unattended. What became one broken window became a house literally filled with trash.”

So, he says, it needs to be fixed before other buildings become magnets as well.

“One broken window becomes two, which becomes four, which becomes eight, ” he says.

The Broken Window theory dates back to a scientific experiment done in 1969. Stanford Professor Phillip Zimbardo took two cars and put them in two very different neighborhoods – one in the Bronx, in a run down neighborhood near NYU, and the other in an affluent neighborhood in Palo Alto, near Stanford. The cars were left with their hoods open. Within three days, the car in the Bronx was stripped to a skeleton. The Palo Alto car sat, untouched, for days. Someone even closed the hood when it was raining. 

Zimbardo pushed the experiment further. He took a sledgehammer to the Palo Alto to see how people would react. Strangers joined in almost immediately. The car was eventually destroyed by vandals.

I go for a ride in  an unmarked police car with Sergeant Dean Hall. Hall has a buzzed haircut, likes his caffeine, and smokes whenever he gets a chance. Hall oversees four housing properties on the Southeast side of San Francisco stretching from Potrero Hill to Bayview Hunters Point.

He says, “I see in developments, when there’s landscaping or graffiti is covered, it does speak to the pride of the neighborhood. They feel better.”

We head for one of the housing projects, sipping coffee from a boutique cafe and talk about Broken Windows. We drive through the winding streets to Potrero Terrace, one of the oldest public housing developments in the city. We’re only a few blocks from the  coffee shop, but it feels like we’re in another country. The apartments look like giant stacked shoeboxes. Some apartment windows are boarded up; the paint outside is cracked and chipped.

This neighborhood has a lot of gang activity but everything looks calm, right now. We continue on toward the Hunters View housing development. The 22-acre complex overlooking the city looks a lot different. Hall looks over the bay.

“Look at the view. There’s significant improvements  here,” he says.

Hall’s talking about a $480 million revitalization project replacing the rundown apartments with new units. The neighborhood will soon include parks and computer centers along with retail space.

“This is the first phase of the new buildings,” Hall says, about the new construction. “Eventually all of these buildings will be torn down. It’s something different. It’s an improvement.”

Hall says he’s hoping that there will be less crime when the newer units are built, but it’s kind of like painting over an old building, not fixing the infrastructure and then presenting it as a new house. In the long run, that doesn’t work.

A criminology study published in 2010 out of Cornell University found that changing the facade of low-income housing doesn’t necessarily have any effect on crime in a neighborhood.

Hall tilts his head and touches his ear to adjust his earpiece that’s informing units that there’s a possible incident. A car is parked on the sidewalk close by. Something out of place.

We drive over and pull up near another patrol car. Two officers are questioning a man who keeps smiling at them, he’s not giving his real name. They check his ID. Turns out he’s on searchable probation, so they handcuff him and search the car. 

“So there was a gun in that car in that Mercedes. He’s not forthcoming with his name and now we know why,” he tells me.

Passing cars slow down to see what’s going on. People peek out of their windows. Hall comes back and tells me what’s happening.

“This guy’s on probation for property crimes,” Hall says.

Turns out the car is parked in front of the house where the man is staying. Five more patrol cars pull up. Two officers go inside to search his room. One comes out carrying manila folders overflowing with paper.

“In his room there’s a lot of financial information on numerous people which leads me to believe there’s some kind of identity theft or property theft going on, and he’s on probation for that, and he’s got a lot of cash on him, several thousand dollars in his pocket,” Hall tells me.

The potential charges mount to felony possession of a firearm, financial crimes and possibly identity theft.

“And it all started with officers approaching a man sitting in a car on the sidewalk,” Hall tells me.

Broken Windows Theory in action. Something was out of place. But here in the Bayview, what’s detective work for some is profiling for others.

The sun is setting. Sergeant Hall and I drive slowly down the street. We pass Candlestick Park and then make a U-turn to revisit all of the housing developments once more. At Potrero Terrace we pass by some little boys climbing on rocks from a wall that’s crumbled to the ground. They’re playing with sticks. Hall gives them a little nod and a smile, and they wave at him. Some of them hold up sticks like make believe guns and shooting them into the air. 

We drive through the Alice Griffith Project. Hall points to a small gray apartment. It looks empty, with trash and broken toys in the yard.  He says that apartment was recently shot at. The owner is now in one of the new housing units. Hall stares out of the car window.

“I think it’s common sense if it’s newer and fresher and there’s more landscaping. It’s broken windows stuff.  You’re like, ‘Hey, this is nice I want to take care of this.’ That’s what we want, everybody wants that, cops, residents...everybody.”

Some argue that the Broken Windows Theory does just that – it assumes that we all want the same sort of environment. Where order reigns. Graffiti is painted over. Abandoned houses torn down. And, to some extent, anyway, it works, though it might take away freedoms from some. What the theory doesn’t do is consider why the windows are broken in the first place.

Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.