The Broken Windows Theory Isn’t Just About Windows

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the norm-setting and signalling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime. The theory was introduced in a 1982 article by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.

Santa Cruz has a big problem with graffiti. It’s certainly not the most dangerous issue, you could argue it’s not even a public safety issue. But it’s vandalism, which is still to the best of my knowledge against the law, and it’s impact on the community can be felt in other indirect ways.

Photo by Pall Martin

Photo by Pall Martin

One way it negatively impacts the community is the financial cost and impact to clean up graffiti. Because graffiti does one thing very well. It attracts more graffiti. And pretty soon, you just have a mess. Someone’s gotta clean it all up. Sometimes it’s the city’s public works department who has to use their limited resources to clean up graffiti in public spaces and public buildings. Sometimes it’s a property owner who has to use their own money to pay to clean it up. But each tag you see out there has an associated cost to remove it.

It also negatively impacts the community aesthetically. Santa Cruz relies heavily on tourists (and the money they spend here) and it’s important to show our town in it’s best light. Why? Because we want them to come back. Because we want them to tell their family and friends about how clean and beautiful Santa Cruz is. Geographically, we live in the real life version of Shangri-La. We have the beauty of the ocean, the redwoods, the mountains, the San Lorenzo river, in our backyard. Why would we want to deface such a majestic and beautiful place to live?

Photo by Pall Martin

Photo by Pall Martin

The graffiti problem is likely the work of a relatively few individuals. It becomes a game for them. It’s deeply embedded in the local gang culture, which further exacerbates gang violence as gangs use graffiti tags to mark their territory. And when rival gangs tag over another rival’s tags, that’s when beefs escalate into violence. People can say that nobody ever died because of graffiti, but that’s simply not true. Maybe the graffiti didn’t actually cause the death, but in many cases, it motivated the action that did.

Locally, we do have a small group of community service minded volunteers who do a terrific job on graffiti abatement. The Graffiti Removal Project is a joint project of the Volunteer Center and Santa Cruz County. The Graffiti Removal Project offers a variety of graffiti free services to community members in the unincorporated area of our county. Their mission is to mobilize volunteers to eliminate graffiti from our neighborhoods through sustained education and removal efforts.

A number of people have suggested that the city and county shift some of the focus from clean up to catching them in the act. This shift could make a dent in the problem if there weren’t many people creating the problem. But there’s still questions here. Will others simply replace anyone taken off the streets? And will the local courts actually take them off the street? Graffiti could certainly be classified as a “nuisance crime”. And the way that we currently deal with nuisance crimes is in need of reform. We need stronger repercussions if we want to make a difference here.

I think graffiti abatement is something everyone in the community can embrace and get involved in. We can’t rely on, or wait for the city or county to clean it up. So take the first step. Clean it up. My neighbors and I work together to keep the alley that runs behind our homes free of graffiti. It’s not a lot of work. It doesn’t happen every day. But when it happens, we can’t ignore it. Because like the broken window theory, doing nothing encourages more. It validates bad behavior. And we all have to do our part to stop validating bad behavior.