The Value of Broken Windows

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Whenever I walk to work (well anywhere really) I’m confronted by abandoned buildings, broken windows, and lots and lots of graffiti. To my American sensibilities I should be nervous, worried that some criminal element is going to jump out and demand my ‘life for my money.’ And because Croatian cities are like little zones of anti-American logic, this assumption of aesthetic decrepitude leading to crime is wholly wrong. In Croatia how things look is rarely how they are.

In the 1980s two criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, came up with a theory about crime and prevention that is commonly referred to as ‘broken windows theory.’ The theory goes that in neighborhoods were vandalism (property damage and graffiti) proliferate, communities in those neighborhoods are either apathetic to crime, or incapable of preventing such crimes, therefore allowing criminals to escalate their offenses, leading to more crime.

Policing the quality of life

The solution: prevent broken windows, or to put it more technically, have police focus on ‘quality of life arrests.’ And this is what many cities have done across the US. Most famously New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. And while it seemed to have worked for NYC, I’m struck by how ridiculous similar policies would seem in Croatia. Croatia stands in stark opposition to the whole broken windows theory. The community, the neighborhood seems to decide what it will sanction and what it won’t.

For example, look at the park across from my building. First, people drink beer (occasionally a borovnica) in that park quite often. Sometimes it’s me and some other parents (though we usually go to the cafe nearby) and sometimes it’s young people. Now, I hate when the young people drink in the park. Not because I worry that they are up to mischief, generally they aren’t, but because they are loud, and it’s late. And they prevent me from sleeping. Yet, no one calls the police. I mean I know everyone in the block can hear them.

Call the cops?

Then I suggest to my wife that she call the police (you know because of the language issue. I feel if there is ever a time for precision, it’s when calling the police), and she gives me a look like I’m nuts: Call the police for teenagers drinking in the park? Are you nuts. Apparently, the police here are reserved for more important things than policing ‘fun.’ And people do call the police. I’ve seen the police arrive in our neighborhood, once when I think a store was robbed, and other times when there have been car accidents. I guess the same goes with graffiti. I mean who really wants to lockup someone for spray painting on an already withering facade? Oh no, you made the crumbling concrete look… better?

A capacity for patience

In my experience, Croatians have an enormous capacity for patience… and believe it or not, understanding (which many of my Croatian friends would dispute). Letting teenagers drink in a park isn’t indifference like broken windows theory suggests, it’s acceptance that teenagers will be… well teenagers.
Bringing the police into something that is hardly a problem, would just make it a problem. It would make more work for the police, and hurt the lives of the kids doing things that we all probably did or wanted to do. Maybe that’s it too, like many things in Croatia, there is some tradition involved here too. Teenagers drinking in the park may remind adults of when they were teenagers drinking in the park. And of course that’s a memory I can’t have, because you know, someone would’ve just called the cops.

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C. McClain Brown
C. McClain Brown