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Looking at crime through broken windows

The national consensus on creation of military courts for the speedy trial of criminals and terrorists is a verdict against the existing criminal judicial system – which has failed us badly. Corruption, a low conviction rate, poor investigations, undue delays, and the reactive approach of the police, the prosecutors and judges are some of the factors that have eroded the confidence of the nation.

Registering an FIR in a police station is the beginning of the process of criminal justice. This means that any move towards making the justice system effective should begin with reforms in the police system. We can learn from the experiences of other countries in this regard. I recall a case study of the New York Police Department (NYPD), which I studied as part of the ‘public management’ course at Columbia University.

‘Public management’ was considered an interesting and easy course as it did not put us to the rigors of econometrics and dry economic models. Professor Aspen, our public management instructor, was an energetic and knowledgeable person who had first-hand experience of working in the public sector. He taught using case studies, one of which related to the restructuring of the NYPD and eradication of crime from New York City during the first stint of Bill Bratton as commissioner of the NYPD. Coincidently Bill Bratton is currently heading the NYPD for the second time. During his first stint as police commissioner, his policing revolved around the ‘Broken Windows’ theory of criminology which basically means that keeping minor crimes under control ultimately restores order.

The term stems from the analogy that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by that window assume that soon other windows will be broken and anarchy will spread from the window to the street. Anarchy will spread signalling that nobody cares. The ‘broken windows’ theory thus assumes that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. Exercising this theory in practice, offenders of minor crimes were stopped, questioned and frisked by the NYPD. During investigations of minor crimes, it turned out in many a case that these offenders were also involved in heinous crimes. Many of those who were engaged in minor disorderly behaviour were by no means minor offenders.

However, the real test of leadership lies not in theorizing the problems, rather in translating such theories into practice for the resolution of problems. On appointment, Bratton set about altering the NYPD on philosophical and structural levels.

Numerous structural changes were introduced. Comp Stat (complaint statistics), a management tool, was utilized for institutionalizing organisational changes. The precincts commanders – the middle managers – were made responsible for operational work and near-real time weekly statistics were gathered on crime. Twice weekly Comp Stat meetings were held where the commanders were required to make presentations. Brainstorming sessions took place.

The CompStat not only made the police commanders more accountable but also helped in the geographic mapping of crimes to identify places and target resources to these specific places. Real-time information on crimes made it possible for the police to timely diagnose problem area. The CompStat system was also connected to the courts for effective monitoring and prosecution of cases.

The ‘broken windows’ theory may not be an ideal theory to tackle crime. It has attracted a lot of criticism especially from human rights activists but the point here is that this theory worked well in the city of New York. The area of Harlem (adjacent to Columbia University) which was considered a no-go area after sunset became almost crime free. This theory may not be replicated in Pakistan in its totality due to our peculiar socio-cultural environment but it provides some useful insights for law-enforcement agencies.

Similarly CompStat, which was instrumental in translating this theory into practice, can turn out to be an important tool for monitoring the performance of police officers working at the operational level. A system encompassing the broad contours of CompStat needs to be put in place by the police department for crime reporting, enhancing the accountability of the police force, monitoring prosecution of criminal cases, and geographic mapping of crimes.

The economics of crime also offers some useful insights for tackling crime and determination of optimum level of punishment and fines. The economics of crime is premised on the assumption that criminals are rational human beings and commit crimes after a cost-benefit analysis. If the probability of being caught and face justice is high, a criminal will think a hundred times before committing a crime. Professor Gary S Becker, who pioneered research in the economics of crime, in his paper ‘Crime and punishment: an economic approach’ raises interesting points. He says that offences are economic activities and punishment is a form of taxation.

Thus crime is not an aberration outside the scope of rational analysis by economists. Rather crime is a predictable outcome of opportunities for gain. The decision to engage in an illegal activity is the outcome of the mental calculus of an individual who weighs benefits and costs, both monetary and non-monetary, to make a decision that reflects the expected balance of said costs and benefits.

While describing what motivated his research Professor Becker said, “I was teaching at Columbia University and was driving for an oral exam with PhD students. The question I asked myself was should I park closer in a spot that was illegal or should I park in a lot which was somewhat further away? So, I had to make a calculation: what was the likelihood that I would be caught if I parked it down the street versus the time, money that would be lost by parking further away?

“I decided to park on the street, and since it was an oral exam, the first question I asked the student when my turn came to examine him on price theory was: how would he handle a problem of this type? Nobody gave a satisfactory answer.” Perhaps that set the professor to work on the economics of crime.

Traditional thinking on crime is premised on the understanding that society can be divided into two groups: good guys and bad guys. The good guys are law-abiding and the bad guys commit crime. The economics of crime however shifts the focus from character to choices available to the individuals. Moreover, economic models assume that the observed behaviour of an individual is not necessarily a result of underlying social conditions. Rather it is the result of individual choices perceived by consequences – and if a government policy can change those consequences, behavioural change will follow.

We need to revisit our laws and the country’s criminal justice system. This job, however, should not be left to lawyers, retired judges, and police officers. A multi-disciplinary approach is required to benefit from the knowledge, wisdom and insights of other relevant disciplines.

Our current criminal judicial system is not delivering. Nobody can deny this fact. But why it is not delivering and how we can make it deliver are questions that can be answered differently by different experts and disciplines.

A commission with the mandate to study criminal laws and criminal justice system will be a good point to start with. Such a commission should include experts from disciplines like law, sociology, economics, computer sciences, management, theology and criminology. The commission should come up with concrete and workable proposals to improve the existing laws and criminal justice system.

The writer is a graduate of Columbia University.

Email: jamilnasir1969@gmail.com Twitter: @Jamilnasir1

Jamil Nasir, "Looking at crime through broken windows," The News. 2014-12-31.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Social issues , Human rights , Social rights , Social justice , Judicial process , Social security , Social reforms , Social Crimes , Criminal laws , Enforcement law , Judiciary , Criminals , Criminology , Sociology , Terrorists , Corruption , Crimes , Gary. S. Becker , Pakistan , FIR