While all societies endure crime, Guyana has unfortunately had more than its fair share. As such it is no surprise that the causes of our crimes and what ought to be done to contain and reduce them, continue to be national burning issues. Arising out of a host of studies by foreign and domestic experts, the police had launched several initiatives over the last few decades, which unfortunately have not yet made much of an impact, based on the statistics.
Maybe a different approach towards crime-fighting needs to be taken. Back in 1982, the Harvard Sociologist, James Q. Wilson, co-authored a paper, “Broken Windows”, which took a contrarian position to the then-received wisdom on crime – which still stubbornly holds sway in Guyana. Maybe, belatedly, the government ought to look at Wilson’s analysis and the recommendations that flowed out of it.
Up to that point, everyone focused on the “root causes” of crime. Crime would not decrease, it was emphasised, until the social and environmental “causes”: poverty, racism, bad housing, poor education, inequality, etc. were addressed. Not surprisingly, the police loved the idea since it absolved them from ever reducing crime in absolute terms. Their stock answer to the stubborn, high and growing crime figures was: “it’s society’s fault; society messed them up and “rehabilitation” should be the riposte.
Of recent there have been some proposals to improve the rehabilitative programs during incarceration and while this is to be encouraged maybe it is time the pre-emptive “broken windows” alternative be considered. Wilson derived both his inspiration and the name from a widely-observed phenomenon. “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree,” Wilson and Kelling wrote, “that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighbourhoods as in rundown ones.”
“Window-breaking” does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are
inhabited by determined “window-breakers” whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)” What’s true of windows, Kelling and Wilson argued, was also true more generally of “untended” behaviour in a community. Wilson was saying that culture matters.
A stable neighbourhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children,
and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become rowdier. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates.
At this point, it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish but many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behaviour accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. “Don’t get involved.”
In essence, Kelling and Wilson were arguing that minor crimes, if unpunished, led to major
crimes and massive social breakdown. The goal of “Broken Windows policing” is to allow
neighbourhoods to police themselves and reduce crime. The role of police through this type of “community policing” is to reduce fear through foot patrol, maintaining order, and the judicious use of officers’ discretion. In so doing, they would only be responding to the previously unacknowledged demand in poor and at-risk communities for the same sense of lawfulness enjoyed in wealthy areas. We all know these communities.
While our “community policing’ initiatives have adopted their name from “Broken Windows” policing, they have entirely missed its essence. In the latter months of 2015, then Commander Hicken had adopted what appeared to be a “Broken Window” model in several at-risk communities. Now that he is the Chief of Police (ag) maybe he should expand the program in “broken-windows” communities across the country.