To set the stage in their article in The Atlantic Monthly, authors James Q. Wilson and George Kelling described a real world experiment:
“Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood upon a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by ‘vandals’ within ten minutes of its ‘abandonment.’ The first to arrive were a family — father, mother, and young son — who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began — windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground . . . The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed.”
Wilson and Kelling were arguing for a very different approach to policing — one that would eventually be adopted around the nation as “community policing.” They started by distilling the key lesson of Zimbardo’s sociological experiment:
“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”
In the last thirty years, Wilson and Kelling have won widespread agreement. But here’s the challenge today. When it comes to making hard budget decisions, priorities like landscaping and litter pick up are usually cut when times are tough. That was certainly true in Ventura. If you have to cut more than 15% of your budget, you can’t afford to spare anything. But in cutting, even though we had to make reductions in Public Safety (which makes up 56% of the General Fund budget) we cut much deeper into maintenance functions.
Too deep, as it turned out. The first flash point was landscaped medians where funding for contract maintenance was slashed 50%. Nearly overnight, overgrown weeds sprouted in highly visible commercial areas, triggering a flood of complaints. One retired resident even grabbed power tools and began whacking weeds on his own. Priorities were shifted to partially backfill the reduced funding (although not quickly enough for many critics). Our medians aren’t what they used to be or how they should be, but they are no longer an outright embarrassment.
But we still have other areas that need attention. Which is why the City Council is putting priority on “a safe and clean Ventura.” These are not two distinct priorities — as the broken window analogy underscores, “safe” and “clean” are directly related.
The recommended budget for Ventura (which the Council will take final action on at their June 18 meeting) allocates a major commitment to a “Crime Reduction Reinvestment Plan” that will add seven police officers and a civilian crime scene investigator over the next two years. In keeping with Council’s priorities, I’m making a supplemental recommendation on June 18 to spend up to $232,000 in one-time franchise back payments toward additional “clean” projects that will tackle some of our most visible public eyesores.
But as important as funding is to maintaining a “safe” and “clean” Ventura, there is an equally, if not more, important component: partnership. I know a shop owner who every morning sweeps the gutter of the entire block in front of his Florist business. I know a Pierpont resident who is personally collecting litter and debris from her neighborhood, including from abandoned homeless camps. We all know civic groups, community councils and churches involved in volunteer clean ups. And every one of the 575 people who work for the City of Ventura can contribute in tangible ways to reporting or abating unsightly conditions.
When I was a kid, public service ads stressed, “Every litter bit hurts.” To create a safer and cleaner Ventura, “every little bit helps.” Together we can both prevent and repair the broken windows in our town. Small efforts can produce big results for our community.