Work Related Blog from a while back

Bill Bratton hit the headlines last year when he was invited to the UK in the aftermath of the London riots, and was touted as a potential new head of the Metropolitan Police. He lectured at LSE in October last year, providing an interesting look at the importance of context in understanding crime and changing behaviour.

Throughout his time as head of transport and chief commissioner of both the NYPD and LAPD in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Bill Bratton was one of the main practical proponents of “Broken Windows Policing”. Referenced in some detail in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’, the general principle of the theory is that a focus on small, environmental changes, in this case cracking down on petty crime and anti-social behaviour, can have a demonstrable effect in changing attitudes and behaviours within these environments.

At this time of Bratton’s leadership, crime was booming in both New York and Boston, with phenomenal levels of gang violence, murder and burglary. Bratton’s approach in both cases was to reprioritise police resources, with a focus on smaller crimes and antisocial behaviour – fare avoidance at the subway, graffiti, the eponymous broken windows – to create a zero-tolerance environment from ground up; once police departments demonstrated their success with ‘petty’ crime, serious crime began to clear up too. It’s a markedly low-key approach to tackling murder and violence, and one that requires phenomenal persistence – in both cases it took weeks and months of cleaning train carriages and chasing fare dodgers through the subways – but the levels of serious crime declined steadily.

The theory is that, in developing the power of the police to deal with more nebulous problems, belief in the police as a force for justice and social change began to slowly re-emerge in communities and criminals alike. There was a practical element to the method – the majority of fare dodgers pulled out of subway ticket halls were wanted for violent crimes, which led to their successful conviction – and it also coincided with an internal shake-up of the police force, which had lost a lot of its credibility and integrity due to internal corruption and ineffectiveness.

Underlying this, though, both in Bratton’s speech and Gladwell’s writing, is the idea that context is very important to human behaviour. Crime prevailed in both New York and Boston because people are unavoidably influenced by their environment and will react accordingly. If the streets are clean, safe and have time and money invested in them, citizens will be proud of their communities, respect social norms and each other, and act within the confines of social contracts. If windows are broken, the walls are tagged and people consistently jump the ticket barriers, people receive the message that behavioural constraints have ceased to function, societal norms have become irrelevant, and laws are unworthy of respect. Within the context of the London riots, the budget cuts in seemingly all areas of local services and the coalition rhetoric of ‘Big Society’, Bratton’s recounting of the application and effects of this method seemed extremely apt.

I know many people in the industry who believe that the Tipping Point as a piece of behavioural literature is a little too broad and generalist to be truly ground-breaking, that it fails to present a cohesive paradigm and instead creates attentional biases towards one element of a phenomenon in understanding an outcome. Indeed, when put into the context of overall socio-economic change in America – an economic boom, new legislation with a push to build more prisons, and the aforementioned reformation of the police force – the overall importance of the Broken Windows method may not be fully ascertainable, especially when it hasn’t been implemented in any other cities to test its transferability.

However, Bratton’s very entertaining and thought provoking talk did raise two research-related lines of thought for me. As researchers who can’t avoid the influence of behaviour economic theory in our work, we know that behaviour is to some degree a function of environment. The government MINDPSACE publications expound the importance of environment and social norms in creating policy and encouraging behaviours; Discovery explored this extensively with the FSA last year whilst segmenting attitudes towards financial behaviour. In more general terms, it reiterates the fact that sometimes the obvious approach is not always the right one, either in writing documents for fieldwork or analysing and delivering back to our clients.

It also underlined, for me at least, the importance of good quality research in policy, and the potential for us to help facilitate real and valuable change as we go forwards as agencies and individuals. One thing that struck me about Bratton’ approach was his emphasis on listening to communities and working with them to deal with their most pressing concerns. To those outside looking in, litter and broken windows may pale in significance next to murder and rape rates, but on the ground they play fundamental role in making people feel safe, valued and part of a functioning society.

What was clear to us with our work with the FSA, and was clear to Bratton too, is that correctly labelling and understanding the relationship between the ‘big’ and ‘little’ issues may only be fully appreciated through mediation between policy maker and communities, who naturally and essentially talk in very different languages. Some organisations, like the CSJ or the JRF, are producing fantastic publications that lead the way within the social sphere, but it’s really an issue that applies across the sectors. For me, the talk and the discussion after it really highlighted one of the most important job that we can do in any context: to work as translator and advocate for both customer and end client, and facilitate the dialogue to develop a brand, communicate ideas, or even drive wide spread behavioural change.



About daniverrall
Researcher. Rower. Angry politico. I like shoes.

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