The “broken windows” theory from the 1980s promoted the idea that visible signs of crime and civil disorder lead to more serious crimes. The theory promotes the idea that the police should target quality-of-life crimes such as vandalism, broken windows, public drinking and drug taking, public urination, and loitering.
The theory is called broken windows, as one of its tenets is that a single unrepaired broken window in a home, store or building clearly signals that no one cares, and so more windows will be broken, and other, more serious crimes will follow, bringing the neighborhood — and eventually the city — down.
The broken windows theory was written in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling and put into practice in the 1990s by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York City police commissioner William Bratton.
Although the broken windows theory has its proponents and detractors then and now, there can be no debate that Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner cleaned up New York City. I’m sure many New Yorkers would like to see a return to those good old days.
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Today in Philadelphia, we see a new take on the broken windows theory, and that is the broken windows of parked cars after thieves have broken it and stolen the car owners’ valuables.
A few years back, someone broke into my parked car on our South Philly street overnight. The thief or thieves took some items my wife planned to return to a store. I called the police and a police officer showed up to take a report. I told the officer there were several cameras on the block that could identify the thief or thieves.
But for such a minor crime, the officer said, shaking his head, no detective would be assigned to investigate it.
Minor crime to you, perhaps. But not to me or to the many victims of “theft from auto,” more commonly known as car break-ins.
Several local TV news stations have recently interviewed on camera a good number of irritated residents in various neighborhoods that have seen a spike in car break-ins.
Matt Petrillo at CBS News interviewed several angry victims on camera. He noted that during the weekend of June 17, there were 100 reported car break-ins citywide, and according to the Philadelphia Police, there have been 5,949 car break-ins thus far this year.
I recently spoke to a veteran Philadelphia detective who said car break-ins were preventable.
“Car break-ins, or smash and grabs, are crimes of opportunity,” the detective told me. “Many victims leave valuables in their parked cars, such as shopping bags, a briefcase, a cell phone or a laptop, and that creates an opportunity for a thief. If you must leave something in your car, hide it under the seat or under a blanket. Keep it out of plain sight.”
[L]ock your car doors, activate your car alarm, and don’t leave valuables in your car, not even in your trunk
The detective explained that thieves go out looking for opportunities to steal, so if they see something in a parked car, they will smash a car window to grab the item. The thieves move quickly, grabbing the item or items, and then run far away from the parked car. The detective added that when parking your car in a parking lot, ensure the lot has an attendant and the parking lot is well lit.
The detective admitted sadly that the police don’t generally investigate car break-ins due to higher priorities and a shrinking police force, and the district attorney’s office rarely prosecutes the thieves. So not only is the car owner out of whatever was stolen and stuck with repairing the broken window, the thief continues to operate unencumbered.
In my view, the police and the district attorney’s office should crack down on this so-called minor crime, which is a quality-of-life crime that can, according to the broken window theory, lead to more serious crime, such as car theft and burglaries.
A task force of detectives should be assigned to scan home security cameras to identify the thieves who break into cars, and then go out and arrest the thieves. And the district attorney’s office should prosecute them as vigorously as they can. Although the thieves will not be put in prison for long stretches, at least they will know that the city residents truly care about their cars being broken into, and that law enforcement will track them down and arrest them.
“Most thieves are stupid and lazy, and drunk or high,” the detective explained. “So city residents should take commonsense crime prevention measures such as lock your car doors, activate your car alarm, and don’t leave valuables in your car, not even in your trunk.”
Paul Davis, a Philadelphia writer and frequent contributor to Broad + Liberty, also contributes to Counterterrorism magazine and writes the On Crime column for the Washington Times.