Students view New Haven through cracked lens

The class of 2012 is coming and, among inquires about classes, parties, food, laundry, they want to know: Is New Haven safe? It seems we have been asking ourselves this question recently as we read about thefts and robberies that affect the Yale community on and around campus. But what we learn from these security notices may reveal as much — maybe more — about us as it does about New Haven.

In 1982, two sociologists published a theory of broken windows in the Atlantic Monthly. Their theory, on which a book was later based, suggested that small signs of disorder in a neighborhood lead to more serious crimes. For example, if a few broken windows are not repaired in a building, the deterioration contributes to an environment in which more windows are broken, which in turn leads to vandalism, graffiti or street crime. The idea seems simple enough: small infractions lead to others and even to larger offenses.

But critics of the broken window theory point out that criminalization of acts and neighborhoods rarely lack racial implications and prejudice. Furthermore, the theory in effect criminalizes poverty, because neighborhoods cannot always afford to fix the exterior or change the living conditions. Critics also argue that there is no clear causal relationship between zero-tolerance policies and major crimes reductions, that other factors and policies have been implemented to reduce crime, and that cities that did not implement these policies experience crime drops, too.

I’m not convinced of the broken windows theory, but perhaps a reverse broken windows theory, provides a useful alternative hypothesis.

For every well intended e-mail or warning about a theft or mugging, which we often read quickly and without context, we lock our doors and close our windows and make an assumption about New Haven. Each time we learn about a crime without inquiring about the context or bigger picture, a certain dangerous perception of the city is reinforced. Small assumptions lead to larger ones about the city as a whole, which affect our relationship to our neighborhood and those around us, and which are then passed down to entering and prospective students.

Revisiting the broken windows theory, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson studied not just the existence of broken windows, but the observation and perception of them. His study found that the perception of social order is influenced by much more than just the actual physical environment. For example, even when two neighborhoods have the same amount of disorder, residents will perceive more disorder in the neighborhood with more black residents.

Similarly, our perception of New Haven is affected by more than the crime reports themselves. Studies on the perceptions of disorder and crime tell us about ourselves and ask us to interrogate our assumptions about crime and social disorder. What effects do crime reports have on our view of New Haven? And what does that say about us?

Public notices are important and we all appreciate being aware and reminded of safety — no doubt, safety is a consideration in any city — but public information, in addition to providing a service, also influences public perceptions. On top of the obvious positive results, like locking our doors at night and using better judgment, how do we react to news about crime and how do we perceive crime in our own city? Are our views of the city well informed? If not, are we simply breaking windows of trust?

Tina Wu is a senior in Calhoun College.