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[Opinion] Broken Windows

Posted February. 07, 2007 07:05,   


If an empty house with broken windows remains for a reasonably long period of time in an urban neighborhood, children throw stones at the house to the point that it ends up having no windows at all, and delinquent teenagers and the homeless flock to the house, turning it into a place for bums. This prompts more and more residents to leave the neighborhood, making the whole neighborhood a slum prone to crimes. In contrast, if the broken windows are replaced, there would be no more windows broken and no more crimes committed. This is the “broken windows theory” developed by the criminologists Catherine Coles and George Kelling.

The New York Police Department applied the theory to reality in the 1990s to address the security problems of the city, which was called a “criminals’ heaven.” The police department believed that it could cut crime by cracking down on actions that disturb public order, such as graffiti, free riding on subways and begging. Indeed, crime in New York has been on a steady decline since 1991. Violent crimes have decreased 75 percent over the past 12 years. The murder rate, which reached 30.72 per 100,000 persons in 1990, dropped to 6.57 in 2005, the lowest rate since 1963. The city is now considered the safest among the major 10 cities in the United States.

However, many argue that the decrease in crimes in New York cannot be attributed to the “broken windows theory.” The real reason behind the change, they say, is that an economic recovery that employed 500,000 people, dwindling racial conflicts, the improving residential environment, and the legalization of abortion, which decreased the number of children born out of wedlock who are prone to crime. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that the application of the theory greatly improved New Yorkers’ awareness of public order and law-abiding spirit.

In Korea, Gangnam-gu in Seoul and Paju in Gyeonggi are following in the footsteps of New York. Gangnam-gu has been making efforts to make Seoul a more orderly and attractive city by cracking down on “petty but bad” offenses, including illegal parking, cigarette butt throwing and illegal plastering of advertisements since October last year.

That said, it is the government who should put into action the theory that “you can bring order by removing small offenses,” since too often the political leadership seems to flaunt the law rather than firmly responding to illegal strikes in the middle of the city by militant labor unions or leftist forces.

Gwon Sun-taek, Editorial Writer, maypole@donga.com