Current Issue

Mending broken windows

Why are some neighborhoods prone to crime and violence while others are not? The most common explanation is “broken windows” — the idea that ignoring small problems, such as shattered glass, creates a breeding ground for more serious crime. The theory has shaped community-policing strategies in Denver and elsewhere for the past two decades.

But Noah Fritz, deputy director of the National Law Enforcement & Corrections Technology Center ,thinks there may be cracks in “broken windows.”

“The hypothesis is that tolerating small disorders sends a message to society saying ‘people around here don’t take care of the little stuff so you can get away with the big stuff,'” says Fritz. But other variables, such as poverty, could lead to serious crime, he explains.

He is using geographic information systems (GIS) technology to test the validity of “broken windows.” GIS program director Steven Hick, law enforcement center GIS specialist Jamie Price and second-year master’s student Megan Gall are collaborating in the research, which is funded by a $8,496 DU public good grant.

GIS links geographic information, such as where crimes were committed, with descriptive information, such as how many crimes were reported in a certain time period.

The team began by looking at panhandling as an indicator for small social disorders. Over the past year, the researchers collected panhandling and crime data from the Denver Police Department. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless provided data on homelessness, a factor that Fritz says is closely related since the vast majority of panhandlers are homeless.

“We have identified 25 or 30 panhandling hot spots in Denver. Now we are putting a grid over the city and apply statistical methods to measure on a block-by-block basis whether there is a correlation between panhandling and crime,” he says. A new panhandling ordinance that puts restrictions on when and where begging for money is allowed was enacted in Denver last year and will give the team an opportunity to test whether limiting panhandling helped decrease crime.

“If we can show that reducing panhandling solves issues with other crimes that would mean that this strategy works and that it has a positive effect for the Denver community,” says Fritz, “But if we don’t see a correlation, we’ll need to search for other factors.”

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