Friday, June 12, 2009

"Pelham 1 2 3" and "Broken Windows"

As I was driving to work today, I listened to NPR's review of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." But more interesting to me was the follow-up story. When the first incarnation of this movie came out in 1974, the NYC subways were a scary place to go for most city residents. Dirty, crime-ridden, and covered in graffiti, they were symptomatic of the rottenness at the core of the Big Apple.

Today, as the story pointed out, the subways are a different place. They're hardly a garden spot, but for the most part, the subway is relatively clean, and there's a lot less graffiti. A sense of order prevails, versus the near anarchy of earlier times.

This reminded me of one of the seminal thought pieces in the debate on the role of policing in our society, George Kelling and James Wilson's March 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled "Broken Windows." It examined how the first step in crime prevention isn't police reaction to individual crimes, but rather the presence of dependable authorities on the street, ensuring that basic maintenance and order are maintained. Even more, than 25 years later it's worth a read, with lessons that we've seen applied in many American cities, and to some extent, in the "surge" that helped pacify Iraq over recent months.

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