Anthony Braga on Crime Prevention Strategies

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on March 21, 2006

American cities at the beginning of the 21st century have seen a quickly escalating and unexpected rise in violent crime. This contrasts with most of the 1990's when falling urban crime rates were thought to be the by-product of strong community outreach and more effective crime-fighting strategies.

Anthony Braga's research helps explain the dynamics that impact crime trends. Braga is a lecturer in public policy and senior research associate in the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. His research focuses on crime-prevention strategies to deal with urban problems such as firearms violence, street-level drug markets, and violent crime hot spots.

Q: You were a key member of the Boston Gun Project / Operation Ceasefire working group that was credited with helping to reduce youth homicide in Boston by almost two-thirds during the late 1990s. But 2005 homicide rates in Boston were the highest in ten years. What is happening in Boston in specific, and with national crime trends in general?

Braga: It's most useful to talk about crime trends in terms of the city-level of analysis because what is going on at the city-level can vary tremendously from city to city. So, for example, right now Boston is experiencing a dramatic increase in homicides, whereas New York is relatively flat. Over the course of the 1990s when Boston and New York were experiencing their noteworthy decreases in violent crime, you had other cities such as Minneapolis and Indianapolis increasing, and still other cities, such as Baltimore, remaining relatively flat. So I think the most productive conversation to have in terms of thinking about crime trends is at the city level.

When you think about the city-level of analysis here in Boston, what's been going on is a resurgence of gang violence. Gang violence tends to occur in cycles, and here in Boston beginning in 2001 if you look at the crime statistics carefully you see gang violence starting to resurge. It was the year after Operation Ceasefire had halted. You had youth violence creeping back up mostly driven by a reawakening of conflicts amongst gangs that in 2003 and 2004 increased by 75 percent, yielding an increase to 68 homicides in 2004 and then, higher still, 75 homicides in 2005. What we're seeing here in Boston is a resurgence in conflicts among street gangs that were reawakened after law enforcement, community based groups and social service partners didn't deal with those ongoing conflicts in a direct way as they had previously to 2001.

Q: Lately there's been discussion, and some research, claiming that the 'fixing broken windows' theory of crime prevention isn't all it's cracked up to be. You've researched this issue - please explain the theory, and what your own research indicates.

Braga: The 'broken windows' theory basically states that small indicators of disorder - graffiti on a building, broken window, trash on the street - begets larger indicators of disorder and this starts to have a downward spiraling effect on crime and quality of life in neighborhoods. As community members begin to withdraw from everyday life, as criminals start to look at an area as a place that no one cares about and a good place to commit crimes, the 'broken windows' theory suggests that if we want to do something to prevent crime in neighborhoods, we really need to disrupt this downward spiral of crime and decay in our cities. In academic circles this theory has generated a fair amount of debate, both in terms of the evidence of its effectiveness - if you do focus on disorder, whether it does anything to prevent crime - but also on the sequencing of events.

Some of the research that I've done has indirectly tested the 'broken windows' theory. In Jersey City, New Jersey, I was lead on a study of a randomized controlled experiment looking at the effects of policing on violent crime in hotspot locations in that city. And what we found was that when police officers pay attention to signs of disorder, they had significant reductions in violent crime, and that was with little evidence of displacement (that is, of crime simply moving around the corner). Now we didn't identify what the key ingredients were in policing disorder - it could be as simple as increasing police contact with potential offenders, thereby sending signals that this is not a good location to commit crime. It also could be removing the easy opportunities at hotspot locations for committing crimes. But overall, there is a growing body of evidence that by taking this sort of approach, paying attention to signs of disorder, we can do something about crime in communities.

Q: You have examined youth gang violence and what you call the 'self-sustaining cycle of violence in which all gangs are caught up.' Explain how the response to gangs by local communities, law enforcement, and criminal justice agencies fits into the larger picture of urban crime trends.

Braga: Street gangs tend to get caught up in cycles of retribution. One shooting or one homicide tends to beget a series of homicides as kids look for vengeance for the acts committed against them. A lot of cities homicide rates are determined by these cycles of violence among gangs that tend to spiral out of control. Kids get caught up in this negative feedback loop of shootings - of trying to maintain status and respect within their peer groups - that requires an immediate and violent response to any disrespect or any violence that's committed against them or their friends in their group. So these cycles of violence tend to be very, very sensitive to random incidents that, to outside observers, may seem to be senseless and silly, but to the kids who are caught up in these high-stake networks, where certain expectations are required to keep their status, they have much more meaning for kids caught up in these networks.

In terms of disrupting these ongoing cycles of violence, what law enforcement agencies, community-based groups and social service providers need to do is throw a firebreak into these ongoing cycles of violence to disrupt the violence by dealing with incidents before they get out of control, by trying to rally as many resources as possible to mediate disputes between groups, and to address threats to gangs' status before they cycle up into ongoing disputes.

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