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Peter Webster
Peter Webster


Neglecting the general appearance of a building and its surroundings can attract vandals, leading to an increase in crime and antisocial behaviour that can easily spiral out of control. Corps Security’s CEO, Peter Webster, explains the principles behind broken window theory and suggests ways that facilities managers can avoid their premises becoming a target for criminal activity.

 

One of the most influential and widely discussed ideas in the world of criminal justice is broken windows theory. It suggests that small-scale damage and disorder often attracts greater levels of vandalism. It goes on to argue that unless this is addressed immediately it can lead to ongoing problems that can be extremely difficult to eradicate.

 

Origin of the theory

In 1982 two American social scientists named James Wilson and George Kelling had an article published in a magazine called The Atlantic Monthly.

The article examined a study carried out by the duo and their theory was named after one of the examples given in the piece that asked the reader to think about a building with a few broken windows. It claimed that if the windows are not repaired, this image of disorder then encourages further antisocial behaviour, suggesting to residents and other passers by that it doesn't matter and that no one cares. It went on to suggest that a further consequence could be that individuals break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside it.

Experiment

Wilson and Kelling’s theory was based on a previous experiment carried out by Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, in 1969.

He arranged to have a car without license plates parked with its engine bonnet up on a street in the Bronx, New York, and a comparable vehicle on a street in Palo Alto, California. Vandals attacked the car in the Bronx within 10 minutes of being abandoned. The first to arrive were a family – a father, mother and young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within 24 hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began – windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery was ripped and children began to use the car as a playground.

Conversely, the car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer and soon, passers by were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed.

Fair game

Wilson and Kelling used Zimbardo’s findings as the basis for their own studies and summarised their findings as follows:

“Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. We suggest that untended behaviour also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighbourhood can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle.’

The right signals

Wilson and Kelling’s experiments found that vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers – the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility – are lowered by actions that seem to signal that no one cares about the property.

They suggested that in order to combat the possibility of sustained vandalism problems should be fixed when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage.

They extended this suggestion into other applications. For example, by cleaning up pavements and other social areas every day, the tendency is for litter not to accumulate and for fewer people to drop their rubbish in the first place.

Fast response

While it is an unfortunate fact of life that regardless of where a building is located it can be a target for vandalism, preventative and strategic security is the only way to maintain a deterrent effect, keep a building safe and reducing the likelihood of criminal damage.

Unfortunately, far too many organisations think that they are saving money by not having a well thought out security strategy and prefer to react to problems rather than adopt a more proactive stance.

In reality, what this means is that if their building falls foul of vandalism or any other breach of security, then they will simply try to ‘patch’ the problem by, for instance, installing CCTV. This is often just a knee-jerk reaction and if this doesn’t work and the problem persists, they then look at other measures such as access control and manned guarding.

This type of thinking ultimately leads to a highly disjointed and ill thought out approach to building security – one that will almost certainly be doomed to fail. This is why it is crucial to carry out a comprehensive risk and threat assessment in order to identify any possible weaknesses in a building’s security and devise a suitable strategy from its findings.

Identification parade

A risk and threat assessment will involve an analysis of an organisation’s activities, premises and facilities, and will address the risk posed to staff, visitors and customers. Once this is completed an assessment of the vulnerability of the building is completed along with a detailed examination of existing security measures.

Every building is unique and has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, the most appropriate security solution can only be configured once all the various threats have been identified and taken into account. Buildings can also be subject to a completely different set of threats at night than they are during the day. For this reason separate day and night audits should be performed to discover the factors that relate to each particular time period.

The location, size, design and structure of a building all have a distinct influence and a final security strategy will often necessitate the integration of a range of measures including manned guarding, CCTV, access control and lighting.

To maintain a building’s integrity it must be remembered that one size does not fit all and getting specialist advice will allow facilities managers to achieve the best security solution for their budget.

Deterrent effect

Having sensible, easy to understand and comprehensive company-wide operating procedures in place can help enormously in preventing crime. This can be as simple as closing windows, removing valuables and locking doors at night. It may seem obvious but it is surprising how many facilities managers fail to do these simple things.

Personnel should also be encouraged to be vigilant and report any type of unusual behaviour or antisocial activity. Notifying a facilities manager about an abandoned vehicle in the vicinity of the building, for example, will mean that the problem is dealt with promptly.

Some security providers are able to offer services such as state-of-the-art remote monitoring, which is a highly effective way of viewing what is happening at a site. It enables virtual patrols to be undertaken and in the event of an intrusion or act of vandalism taking place the monitoring centre can alert the relevant contact to attend the building.

Physical presence

When part of a well thought out and implemented security strategy, manned guarding can prove to be highly effective.

As part of the study that produced the broken windows theory, Wilson and Kelling examined foot patrol policing in Newark, New Jersey. They found that citizens perceived they were safer if they saw a police officer on the beat.

Wilson and Kelling argued that the perception of safety was in fact the result of the police officers performing an important function. Foot patrol officers maintained a ‘surface’ order in their neighbourhoods. They silenced boisterous teenagers, moved loiterers along, and noted unusual activity. They provided a visible law enforcement presence. Because residents felt that presence, they were more likely to enforce the neighbourhood's rules themselves.

All of these attributes and benefits apply to manned guarding and this type of security acts as a highly effective deterrent.

Lasting impact

Broken windows theory has had a significant impact on all aspects of law enforcement and security within the community. The vast majority of community policing and restorative justice initiatives can be traced to this theory and the idea that offenders should make amends with the community are all linked to the idea that visible involvement brings visible results. If people appear to care, then potential criminals will believe that they do care and will respect their rights and their property.

One of the highest profile examples of broken windows theory in practice took place in the 1990s. As part of the regeneration of New York City, the city’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, adopted the broken windows theory and implemented a community policing strategy that focused on order maintenance and preventative measures.

In practice, this meant that graffiti was washed nightly from subway cars, subway turnstile-jumpers were arrested, litter was picked up, and other minor offences that were previously not dealt with seriously were enforced to the letter of the law. With the attitude that minor crimes were often found to be the tipping point for violent crime, almost immediately rates of petty and serious crimes dropped substantially. In the first year alone, murders were down 19 per cent and car thefts fell by 15 per cent, and crime continued to drop ever year for the following 10 years.

Lessons to be learned

Since their original article was published, Wilson and Kelling’s theory has been scrutinised and debated. However, the impact of broken windows theory has been immense and as their theory has gained in popularity it has been applied to everything from school discipline to health and safety procedures.

The original findings have many lessons for the application of security processes and procedures, especially with regard to the deterrent effect of having a manned guarding presence. Not only does a this type of security mean that any incidents can be dealt with quickly, it also means that such events are less likely to happen in the first instance.

Thinking ahead

Broken windows theory is something that all facilities managers should be aware of. The bottom line is that in order to prevent a building being targeted for further criminal damage, any maintenance issues must be addressed immediately. While it may be tempting to wait until two or three similar jobs need to be undertaken and then do them at the same time, leaving a broken widow, graffiti or litter around not only gives stakeholders and customers the wrong impression, it will make a building a target for further criminal damage.

ABOUT PETER WEBSTER

Peter was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Corps Security in December 2010. In his extensive career, Peter has worked for BET, Rentokil Initial and other major plcs and has had responsibility for managing a variety of complex support services businesses in the UK and internationally. He is well known and respected within the UK support services sector for his ability to develop and implement successful business strategies and his high level involvement with industry organisations. Peter has been very active in the Business Services Association, the Textile Services Association (former President) and is a previous Chair of the Cleaning and Support Services Association. He is currently Vice-Chair of Governors at Burchetts Green (C.E.) Infant School.

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