Bobbies, thugs and dynamism


“I never thought I would live in a country where the police would have these powers.” Stuart Chapman, chief superintendent, South Yorkshire Constabulary, United Kingdom.

The British are waging a war on public incivility, by which they mean mostly, in the words of the Economist, “uncouth teenagers hanging around on the street corner.”

The police may now issue an ASBO, “anti-social behavior order,” using powers of discretion not subject to court scrutiny or “beyond reasonable doubt” standards of proof. The offender is constrained in his or her civil liberties, and the repeat offender is liable to 6 months in prison.

This is not the first time this battle has been fought in recent memory. Giuliani sought to “civilize” New York City. Bloomberg continues the campaign.

I understand the impulse. There is something threatening about public incivility. It is a modest, but distinct, form of terrorism. God fearing, good hearted citizens are made to fear for the security of person, family and home. Tolerating incivility gives power to thugs who are often marginal in their abilities, accomplishments, and social value. It is manifestly wrong that those who give so little to the common good should be allowed to extract so much from it.

I also admire the social science that went into this war. According to the “broken windows” work of Kelling and Coles, small infractions have larger consequences. Thus did they turn the old approach to community policing on its head. The old approach went after big crimes, on the assumption that they did most harm, and in the hope that the small crimes would feel a “chilling effect.” The “broken windows” model says that minor infractions have the effect of licensing major crimes, that they reset the “permission” conditions of a community. In sum, suffer a broken window, or a British thug, and we have in effect set out a “welcome mat” for larger crimes. (I don’t know the research here. I embrace this argument chiefly for the way it grasps the dynamism of the social world. In short, it strikes me as consistent with other things we know about community life and it is, to this extent, plausible.)

But here’s what troubles me. Communities that root out minor offenders set another dynamic in motion. This is the hyper-vigilance by which people begin to look for any departure from the norm, with the result that the norm itself grows ever smaller and more confining. If we give a community the power to scrutinize too finely and punish too much, we diminish the permission conditions for everyone, not just thugs. Start issuing ASBOs, and before we know it, we are Switzerland, a place of that greets the smallest departures as scandalous.

It’s as if we are caught between two equally unhappy potential outcomes. If we endure little crimes, they become big crimes. And in the face of a newly dangerous social world, people begin to withdraw from social services and to object to the taxes with which the public sphere is enabled. Urban life gives way to suburbs and people begin to privatize education, entertainment and protection. They begin to withdraw from the social contract. But if we punish little crimes too zealously, we risk forcing a dynamic that runs in the other direction. The community becomes so much the captive of a bourgeois rigidity that we cannot help but begin to withhold the other funds we make available to the community, the small gestures of individuality, creativity and engagement that make our communities lively places in which to live. Our efforts to escape meanness of one kind puts us at risk of promoting meanness of another kind

I guess the question comes down to this. How well do we control the “broken windows” dynamic. Is this, in the language of Cold War science, a controlled reaction or an uncontrolled reaction? Can we discourage small crimes against law without discouraging small crimes against social convention? I’m not saying we can’t. I am saying we need to know more about the broken windows dynamic before we unleash it.


Anonymous. 2004. The war on incivility. The Economist. July 24, 2004

Kelling, George and Catherine Coles. 1998. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: The Free Press.

Please see Stephen Karlson’s reply here.

10 thoughts on “Bobbies, thugs and dynamism

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  2. steve

    There is a version of this same problem in private governance in condominiums. If you allow a “reasonable” amount of variation and individual idiosyncracy (planters in front of the door, or holiday decorations, for example), then the door is opened to less palatable variations. Trying to engineer legally defensible distinctions about what is tasteful and what is not is pretty much hopeless, so each individual deviation from the rules must be specifically authorized by a board vote. On the other hand, if the default is set the other way, so that deviation is allowed unless expressly prohibited, you avoid sterility but risk losing curb appeal and coherence (doors painted different colors, etc.) Finding the right balance is tricky.

  3. Grant

    Steve, thank you, it occurs to me that we have groups for parsing the social world: those who believe that permission is a “slippery slope” towards choas and those who think it is mostly benign because the benefits of tolerance are greater than the costs). The former group fears this kind of dynamism and the latter promotes it. And I guess everyone finds the community that matches their fear/tolerance ratio. In a general sense, I think it’s true that the nay sayers have almost always been wrong. There were those who said that we were courting the end of civlization by giving the vote to women, by ending the big trusts, by enduring things like street fairs, they have been proven wrong. My preference is I guess the libertarian one. (So what am I doing in Connecticut?) Thanks.

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  5. dave

    Rather than a crackdown on crime, this is very much a crackdown on a particular group of people – those who in Edinburgh are known as ‘Neds’ – Non-Educated-Delinquents. To caricature [and this *is* a caricature, not an academic analysis], they are a [mostly] working class group who have few or no social skills and who are not very respectful of middle class mores and who really don’t care if you know it either.
    [A slightly longer version is in the trackback…]

  6. Grant

    Stephen n has an interesting response to this blog at Karlso

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