Campus Cops Corner

Broken Windows Theory and the Orderly Environment

Ken Hilte, February 16, 2012

In the March 1982 issue of “The Atlantic Monthly Journal,” criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson first espoused a theory commonly referred to as “Broken Windows." They maintained that the fear of crime affected the community’s quality of life, as much, if not more, than the amount of actual crime in that community. They learned that public disorder (such as the presence of graffiti, trash,  “...disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed) made people feel unsafe no matter what the actual crime statistics in that neighborhood. 

The presence of “Broken Windows” signaled that “no one cares,” and that misbehavior is tolerated. 

Our own Dean of Students, Jennifer Sengenberger, recently shared an article with me which continues to corroborate the Broken Windows Theory.  The article, published in the February 9, 2012, Law and Policy Report of “The Association for Student Conduct Administration,” focuses on an experiment where innocuous fliers were placed on bicycles throughout two neighborhoods.

The fliers had to be removed before the bicyclists could be on their way. All trash cans had been removed from the immediate vicinity, forcing the bicyclists into one of two options: Throw it onto the ground or take it with them until they could find a trash can. Both neighborhoods bore a prominent sign prohibiting graffiti, but in one neighborhood, vandals had sprayed graffiti over the sign and throughout the area. The other area was left pristine. The researchers learned that the bicyclists in the graffiti-covered area threw the fliers onto the ground at twice the rate of the bicyclists in the pristine area.

Author Steven Pinker wrote “[A]n orderly environment fosters a sense of responsibility not so much by deterrence … as by the signaling of a social norm: This is the kind of place where people obey the rules.”  

This applies to us at PPCC in that we are signaling our norms by what we tolerate. Did you see that large piece of trash blowing in the parking lot? Did you pick it up, or did you ignore it? Did you ignore the boisterous language in the hallway, or did you address it? Even if you don’t feel comfortable addressing the matter yourself, did you refer the matter to someone who could? Did you do so immediately? If we recognize the minor issues of disorderly conduct as boundary testing, we can see where our tolerance of it invites larger and more serious transgressions. 

I encourage you to call the Campus Police at 502-2911 any time you see things that signal “disorder” and “no one cares.”  I’m confidant that’s not the message we wish to send here.

Ken Hilte

Chief, PPCC Public Safety


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