NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Involved Neighbors Reduce Crime

January 9, 2004

The willingness of residents to intervene is the main influence on a neighborhood's crime rate, according to research by Felton Earls of Harvard University and others. Even in poorer neighborhoods, when residents are involved -- such as calling the parents of kids who are loitering or turning vacant lots into community gardens -- they are less likely to experience violent crime in their neighborhoods.

Earl's research appears to contradict James Q. Wilson's influential "broken windows" theory, says the New York Times. Wilson theorized that higher rates of major crimes in some areas are due to the failure to respond small acts of vandalism. Wilson says there is no empirical evidence for his theory, yet many cities have used it to justify extensive policing to crack down on property crimes such as graffiti.

Earls measured neighborhood involvement, which he calls community efficacy, by surveying nearly 9,000 Chicago residents in various neighborhoods and correlating their responses with local crime rates. Among his findings:

  • The most significant barriers to close-knit neighborhoods were concentrated poverty, high turnover rates for residents, and high proportion of immigrants, accounting for about 70 percent of the variations in cohesiveness among the neighborhoods studied.
  • Neighborhoods with higher levels of involved residents had homicide rates that were as much as 40 percent below what would otherwise be expected.
  • Programs to improve community cohesiveness have been shown to work, says the Times: in Boston, the Ten-Point Coalition organized by black ministers that developed after-school programs for kids is believed to have reduced the annual homicide rate from 151 in 1991 to 35 last year.

Local governments, says Earls, should focus less on catching the graffiti scrawlers and more on encouraging neighbors to meet and work together.

Sources: Dan Hurley, "On Crime as Science (A Neighbor at a Time)," New York Times, January 6, 2004; Robert J. Sampson, Stephen W. Raudenbush and Felton Earls, "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy," Science, January 16, 1997; William Harms, "Study Conducted in Chicago Neighborhoods Calls 'Broken Windows' Theory into Question," University of Chicago Chronicle, Vol. 19, no. 7, January 6, 2000.


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