• Christopher G. Moore

No Broken Windows

It’s official. No Broken Windows has been adopted as policing policy to be taught in a senior-police training-course offered by the Central Investigation Bureau in Bangkok.

The Bangkok Post reported on the adoption of the No Broken Windows Theory for Bangkok. “The Central Investigation Bureau has sent its senior police back to school in order to learn about what it calls ‘sustainable’ crime reduction.”

It seems from the press report, that No Broken Windows training program for senior cops, as explained to the press by the police, means pretty much whatever the police say it means: stopping three or more people from riding a motorcycle, not using zebra crossings, and, of course, taking broken windows more seriously.

As the senior brass go back to school to learn about No Broken Windows, I have a few suggestions for extra reading on the theory.

No Broken Window Theory overlooks reality that in Thailand routine violation of minor traffic laws (not to mention murder, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, trafficking) by the rich is a significant law enforcement issue. Ever notice those luxury cars speeding up as they approach a zebra crossing? Getting people to use a zebra crossing as a means to deter crime is indeed a challenge for several reasons. The most important of which is a zebra crossing doesn’t carry the same message for Thai motorists and pedestrians. To assume that using a zebra crossing in Thailand is the same as in England is a death sentence.

Zebra Crossing in Bangkok

Nothing quite highlights cultural and historical difference than a policy borrowed from another culture. New York City conceived a policing policy under the name—No Broken Windows. For whatever reason Bangkok is scheduled to adopt this policy. Let’s take a stroll together and talk about what this means, how it works, and if it works.

The No Broken Windows theory emerged from a 1982 article written by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.

The basic idea of No Broken Windows:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

Sukhumvit Road street bar (Courtesy:

After Rudy Giuliani’s election as Mayor of New York City in 1993, he hired a police commissioner to implement a no tolerance policy. Under the umbrella of that policy, NYPD began a strict enforcement program, targeting those engaged in subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists and the “squeegee men.”

The theory was also used to support the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question, and frisk.”

Having lived in both New York City in the mid to late 1980s, and in Bangkok since 1988, I have observed law enforcement efforts in both cities. The two urban environments are significantly different. For example, is the absence of an equivalent of the vast slums of Klong Toey curled up in the heart of Manhattan.

Typically windowless Klong Toey slum is situated right next to the richest part of Bangkok, Sukhumvit area, sometimes called “The Green Zone”

In the mid-1980s, New York City streets at night would have few people around. Bangkok streets overflow with hawkers and food vendors. CCTV camera coverage is widespread in Bangkok as well (although many of them as I written elsewhere may be “dummies” or fake), the tight-knit social organization in Thai society may have less traction in Bangkok than in the provinces but the bamboo telegraph remains operational and ensures most of the time that staying anonymous is more difficult than in New York.

The No Broken Window Theory rests on a neighborhood’s general appearance. If social norms tolerate a shabby and neglected appearance, No Broken Windows suggests this is an invitation for vandals to increase the chaos. The assumption is No Broken Windows will restore the city to an ordered and clean state and discourage minor acts of crime, which lead to further criminal conduct. It also makes implicit assumptions about the scope and degrees of relative poverty within an urban environment. I like Utopia as much as the next person but accept this state is an idealized fiction that never existed, and will never exist.

The contemporary Bangkok neighborhood scene is better known among foreigners for its glitz high rise towers and shopping malls but along the edges are hard core areas of poverty that you’d be hard pressed to have found in New York City thirty years ago.

Bangkok poverty

The police monitor the disorder in the environment and arrest those breaking windows, littering the streets, painting graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings and train cars. The idea is to reclaim the environment as a clean and ordered place. And put the vandals on notice that they are at risk of being stopped and arrested.

Bangkok graffiti

The central question is whether the New York City policing experience under the No Broken Window police brought about a reduction of crime? The researcher found no benefit resulted from the police targeting petty crime. The causal link between the theory and the dramatic drop in crime is also questionable as crime decreased across the United States, and in urban environments like New York, but which had no such policing policy.

Other factors such as the reduction of the number of young men between the ages of 16 to 24, the reduction of the crack epidemic, increase of prison populations, the fall in unemployment rates are more likely explanations for decline in crime rates. The theory hasn’t been supported by the evidence and alternative explanations.

There is another downside to No Broken Window—it allows for an inflation of policing powers. Researchers and scholars have documented the abuse resulting from vesting broad discretion in the police. The main conclusion is it results in repression of minorities within an urban community. (See: Levitt, Steven D.; Dubner, Stephen J (2005). Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-073132-X.)

Others have written the theory results in criminalizing the poor and homeless who are mainly racial minorities. The policy was a way to use ‘science’ as a basis to expand the discretionary power of police to stop, frisk and arrest young black and Latino men. The racial divide, and the fear of minority criminals, is never far from the surface in American policing policy formulation or gun control legislation.

With No Windows Broken, the police are issued a free pass to arrest locals “for the ‘crime’ of being undesirable.” The policy becomes a fig leaf to cover racist profiling. In the context of Bangkok, dark skinned natives from Isan and migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia, would be more vulnerable to arrest. Their appearance makes them a convenient target for stop and frisk street operations. And their arrests would have the legitimacy of the No Broken Windows Theory behind it.

Joshua C. Hinkle and Sue-Ming Yang have questioned the methodology used to test the broken windows theory out in the field.

The perception of what is an acceptable level of disorder is not a universally agreed upon. Cultural and class attitudes play a large role in what is an acceptable level of litter on the street. “That is, people with different demographic backgrounds and life experiences might react to the same environment in very different ways . . . social disorder is a social construct, rather than a concrete phenomenon.”

Bangkok motorcycle taxis

Precisely. Not to mention the hiring, training and monitoring of the police and the widespread corruption make Bangkok’s law enforcement light years away from the broken windows in New York City. The culture of New York and Bangkok are vastly different, and that is reflected in street life, the slums, the culture of policing, the social hierarchy and the prevailing kreng jai system where important people are immune from the law. Count the illegal gambling casinos operating in Bangkok; then count the ones operating in New York.

Bangkok traffic police dancing

There are acts of behavior, that after many years seems almost normal, but they stop outsiders in their tracks such as a chorus line of synchronized women police officers dancing in the street. It is difficult to imagine this scene in New York. The point being not that Bangkok cops are breaking into dance and song as part of their daily rounds, but from the sub-culture, tradition, uniforms, and training they march to a different drummer than the one that leads the New York band of brothers. Indeed if the dancing scene above suddenly appeared mid-town Manhattan at lunch hour, tourists numbers would balloon, coop prices inflate, and hedge fund managers would spend more time on the street. Markets would suffer. No one would care about a broken window. A SWAT team and snipers dispatched to seal the area. Drones overhead. But I digress.

So how did the Thai police force, which excels in dancing around tough law enforcement issues, conclude that a 30-year-old policy called No Broken Windows, overloaded with baggage, was suitable for Bangkok in 2014? That is exactly the kind of question the authorities hate foreigners for asking. It might be worth asking the instructor at the police training seminar.

Let’s journey a bit down that theoretical road and stop now and again and see what we find.

New York City hired thousands of new policemen in the early to mid-1990s and regular patrols were conducted throughout the city. As a civilian observer in the mid-1980s I rode along with NYPD to see first hand how laws were enforced in tough, crime infested neighborhoods with high-rise slums and illegal immigrants. There was a major crime problem in New York during that time. I witnessed it first hand. New York City has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Can we say it was the No Broken Windows policy that is responsible for that change? Many experts conclude that wasn’t the case.

As with most social engineering, the knot of complex features working in one environment at a particular time and in a certain culture yield a result. Others want the result and discount that complexity, believing that the policy alone will produce the same result in a radically different environment, culture and time frame.

From the local English press reports in Bangkok, there is no indication that new resources will be allocated to the Bangkok version of No Broken Windows. Given that an expansive and subjective interpretation of that theory as a kind of social control of behavior, i.e., use the zebra crossing (but don’t expect the person behind the wheel to stop) it does fit a cultural inclination to favor the vague over the concrete and fits a certain mindset that underwrites senior police training programs.

Part of Bangkok’s charm has been the crowded, broken pavements, motorcycles driving on the pavement or the wrong way on the street, the pure chaos of food vendors with bottles of gas cooking up Pad Thai to order as dogs beg at tables for scraps of food. Klongs (the canals) in most parts of the city are laced with an evil brew of refuse and sewage. Broken windows? You’ve got to be joking if you think that’s the way to solve the crime problem in Bangkok. Taxi drivers routinely stop along the road to relieve themselves against a wall or a bush.

Bangkok klong

No one denies the big difference in Thai culture inside Bangkok from American culture inside New York City. During Songkran white powder paste is traditionally used as a kind of graffiti to vandalize people’s faces – and sometimes the police are targeted.  Instead of replying with a Taser, they reply with a smile. Songkran is a special holiday where nearly everyone extends tolerance to total strangers who insist on throwing water on them and pasting their faces with white powder.

Bangkok policemen standing behind a banner that reads: “No power play on Songkran holiday. Violators may be found guilty. With best wishes from the Police Department.”

In that case, how did a two-decade old heavily criticized New York City policy called No Broken Window end up as a ‘new policy’ in Bangkok? It is as if Dr. Who arrived in a time machine and convinced the top brass he had a solution to their law enforcement problems. Sometimes things have no explanation. They just happen and you deal with that happening in the Thai way—wait a couple of months before it is shelved and Dr. Who arrives with another foreign policy that promises to make Bangkok streets and canals look like a version of Geneva.

I wouldn’t want to think what would happen to the teenager who rubbed wet powder on the face of a member of NYPD. I am guessing the probabilities are high that he wouldn’t respond with a smile.

Bangkok Cop celebrating Songkran

Summary answer for the final examination in the police training course: Even if New York and Bangkok were identical, a large amount of research that suggests that the No Broken Windows Theory has produced no evidence that it was responsible for reducing crime.

Meanwhile, an alert has gone out for Dr. Who to retrieve a law enforcement plan from the future, one that has gone through all the research and testing phase and produces jaw-dropping reductions in crime. He may come to alert us, as we need the reminder, that some foreign imported political ideas from the past have quietly been abandoned in the place where they were tried out and found to be, well, not to put too fine a point on it, disappointing.

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