Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods: Does It Lead to Crime?

  • Sampson R
  • Raudenbush S
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Discussed in this Brief: The link between disorder and crime; specifically, whether manifestations of social and physical disorder, such as public drunkenness, graffiti, and broken windows, lead directly to more serious offenses. The study, part of the long-range Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, assesses the "broken windows" thesis and its implications for crime control policy and practice. Key issues: The assumption that social and physical disorder can escalate to serious crime has had a major influence on law enforcement in many urban areas, resulting in police crackdowns on even minor incivilities. The research, conducted in 196 Chicago neighborhoods, assesses this thesis, proposing that crime stems from the same sources as disorder--structural characteristics of certain neighborhoods, most notably concentrated poverty. "Collective efficacy," defined as cohesion among neighborhood residents combined with shared expectations for informal social control of public space, is proposed as a major social process inhibiting both crime and disorder. Disorder was measured by direct observation rather than through the subjective perceptions of neighborhood residents. The informal social control mechanism of collective efficacy (and the broken windows thesis as well) focuses on what is visible in public places. Key findings: The study suggests that disorder does not directly promote crime, although the two phenomena are related, and that collective efficacy is a significant factor in explaining levels of crime and disorder. --Disorder and crime alike were found to stem from certain neighborhood structural characteristics, notably concentrated poverty. --Homicide, arguably one of the best measures of violence, was among the offenses for which there was no direct relationship with disorder. Disorder was directly linked only to the level of robbery. --In neighborhoods where collective efficacy was strong, rates of violence were low, regardless of sociodemographic composition and the amount of disorder observed. Collective efficacy also appears to deter disorder: Where it was strong, observed levels of physical and social disorder were low, after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics and residents' perceptions of how much crime and disorder there was in the neighborhood. --The findings imply that although reducing disorder may reduce crime, this happens indirectly, by stabilizing neighborhoods via collective efficacy. Target audience: Local law enforcement officials and policymakers, particularly those in urban areas; researchers, particularly those focused on violence prevention.

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  • Robert J. Sampson

  • Stephen W. Raudenbush

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