Crime-fighting at the community level

There is the ongoing debate whether or not crime is being brought under control, as the Police claim. Statistics alone will not convince citizens until they actually begin to feel safe in their neighbourhoods and are not forced to convert their homes into jails with the “iron grills” installed over their doors and windows. While “intelligence-led” policing has been touted as one approach to address the challenge, this is more tactical than strategic.
In his 1982 article, “Broken Windows”, Harvard sociologist James Q Wilson took a contrarian position to the dominant “root causes of crime” approach. Crime would not decrease, it was asserted, until we first address the social and environmental causes like poverty, racism, bad housing, poor education, inequality, etc.
Not surprisingly, the Police loved the idea: basically it absolved them from ever reducing crime in absolute terms. Their stock answer to the US’s stubbornly high and growing crime figures was: “it was society’s fault.” In Guyana, there is a persistent section of officialdom that insists on pushing the “root causes” theory of crime reduction. We hope that they will take a look at Wilson’s “broken windows” alternative.
The broken windows theory derived both its inspiration and its name from a widely-observed phenomenon. “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree,” Wilson and his co-author 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 was true of windows, Kelling and Wilson argued, was also true more generally of disruptive public behaviour in a community. Wilson pointed out that culture matters and if such behaviour is not nipped in the bud, it can quickly develop into institutionalised criminal lifestyles. While Wilson was thinking mostly of urban areas, with our older, densely packed villages joined by newer and larger housing developments with no organic community spirit, the now ubiquitous petty drug dealers and users in the villages might just be our tip-off “broken windows”.
We can already see in our villages the alienation, anonymity and anomie that used to typify towns. Unruly children, who are not “raised by the village” grow up to be teenagers who get into fights and bully people on street corners. They drive their cars with their music blaring from their amplified speakers in the middle of the night. Rum shops are opened at every other street corner and drunks meander the streets panhandling unwary pedestrians.
Fearing that more serious crimes would occur, residents will keep indoors more often, and very soon, the streets are left to the unruly elements. Agricola might be a good example of this transformation. 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 a neighbourhood to police itself and reduce crime.
In this approach, the role of Police is to reduce fear through foot patrols, maintaining order, and the judicious use of officers’ discretion through “community policing”. While our “community policing” and “neighbourhood police” initiatives have adopted their names from “Broken Windows” policing, they have entirely missed its essence. In Guyana, the Community Police is not part and parcel of the official Police Force and merely ride around in their officially supplied vehicles, throwing their weight around on ordinary residents.
The Public Security Ministry must integrate the two units into one, with the Community Policing unit dedicated as “beat police” that patrol “broken windows” neighbourhoods constantly on foot or bicycles.