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Graffiti as Devil on the Shoulder
November 26th, 2008

Keeping quality-of-life crimes in check is viewed by many as a means of sandbagging against the possibility of a crime wave resulting from the economic downturn.

Julia Vitullo-Martin told AMNY last week that the city needs to keep cracking down on such offenses. “Our sidewalks are mess, streets are a mess, theres dirt all over the place, quality-of-life offenses are clearly going up, theres graffiti all over the place, theres awful acid vandalism that one sees increasingly in the subway,” she cautioned.

But the theory that petty crime leads to more serious crime, referred to as the “Broken Windows” theory, had never been scientifically tested – until now.

A study published in the online journal Science found that people will indeed commit crimes if they see that others have gotten away with something.

In a series of experiments that played out over two years, Kees Keizer, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, created environments in public places to test the theory.

In one experiment, Kees and his colleagues painted graffiti in an alleyway used to park bicycles. He then attached fliers for a nonexistent sporting event to the bikes and observed how many people littered the fliers. He also observed how many people littered the fliers when the alleyway was clean.

The result? Nearly 70 percent of those observed littered when the walls had graffiti (which was painted sloppy so that it wouldn’t be mistaken as art). But when the walls were clean, only a third littered.

Pictures of the experiment are posted on the Not Rocket Science blog.

But zero-tolerance polices used to keep such quality-of-life crimes in check can be counterproductive, Keizer warns, because people view it as a declaration of war.

Geraldine Pettersson, co-author of a 2003 report on graffiti for the British Department for Transport, came to a similar conclusion. “You make it sound like a battle, and it becomes a challenge to them,” she informed The New Scientist.

Furthermore, the study only proves that people will commit similar crimes, not that the seriousness of the crimes will escalate.

Its an interesting study, its very clever. And the results are believable within the limited bounds set by their design, Robert Sampson, chairman of Harvard University’s department of sociology, told the Associated Press.

“But the results dont show that disorder spreads to predatory crime,” he said, “what they show is that disorder increases peoples likelihood of committing (similar) acts.

By on November 26, 2008, 2:34 pm
In category: Arts,Community Development,Crime & Safety | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Graffiti as Devil on the Shoulder”

  1. Broken Windows, Broken Hearts « Politics as Puppetry Says:
    December 1st, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    […] Wonkster reported on an interesting study on the theory that showed ‘quality of life’ crimes encouraging other quality of life […]

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