Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

People inclined to steal if others breaking rules

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If you saw $10 in an envelope sticking out of a mailbox, would you steal the money, or pop the envelope in the mail?

If there is graffiti all over the mailbox or lots of litter on the ground, you’d be twice as likely to take the cash, according to a provocative study that taps into a shady side of human behaviour. It also lends support to the controversial “broken windows” theory behind crime and anti-graffiti prevention programs from Vancouver to Rome.

The study, published online Thursday by the journal Science, found people are more inclined to litter and steal when it seems other people have been breaking the rules. “The mere presence of graffiti more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing,” it says.

This study actually adds very little to what is already known about human behaviour and honesty, but it will be (and has been) jumped on by those who promote the mindless “zero tolerance” approach to crime. What happens then is that resources are diverted to the prosecution of petty crimes, and much greater injustices can be allowed to slide away unnoticed. It should not need repeating, but I will have to, is that crime has been falling steadily for years. It is also the case that the United States locks up a greater percentage of its citizens than most other countries (with the exception of a few of the worst tyrannies it supposedly condemns) but has on the whole much higher crime rates.

Very few people are absolutely honest. Just as very few people are completely without any moral standards at all (though we do seem to be adept at allowing them to hold some of the top jobs in our society). Most people when faced with the opportunity to take something that is not theirs, or enjoy a service without paying for it will do so if they think there are no consequences. So the “if others breaking the rules” also applies to a general perception that not only can you get soemthing for nothing, but so is everyone else, and they do not seem to suffer for it.

This is as true of speeding, not paying for a transit ride or parking in a place designated for those with disabilities. And the more we talk about the impunity of law breakers, the worse the problem gets. The best that any policy can do is hold down the amount of “non compliance” to a tolerable level. Most people will not shop lift if the store has visible deterrents. But if they see people walking through the doors, with the alarms ringing and nothing happening, they will begin to speculate on how easy it would be to get away with something. Most Canadians making day trips to the US bring back stuff they do not declare. The border agents are probably well aware of that, but also well aware of the time and trouble searching every vehicle would take, and the consequences of delaying everyone for the sake of a few pairs of sneakers.

For a long time in this region we have been subject to a vociferous campaign about fare evasion. It is my sincere belief – though I have no data to support it – that as a result of that constant harping on about “nobody pays the fare” that the general perception of the risks and penalties of getting caught has changed and that in itself has increased the level of evasion. The now famous unpaid ticket of Vancouver’s new Mayor has added to that. For what most people now know is that very few of these fines ever gets paid.

In London in the 1970s the enforcement of parking fines collapsed. The courts simply did not have time to deal with unpaid penalty notices. Once this was widely known, the percentage of people overstaying a meter or parking on yellow lines increased rapidly. Some of the worst offenders were the journalists who were reporting on the issue. Wheel clamping was a vast over reaction to a minor offence – but necessary to restore some semblance of order on the streets. It would have been much more efficient to have concentrated efforts on those vehicles that had more than ten tickets outstanding, but that would have involved a computer database. And it was that that was seen as the “assault on civil liberties” not the gross overreaction to someone not getting back to their meter in time of having to wait for hours to get unclamped.

Zero tolerance simply means that law enforcement suddenly becomes mindless. And minor offences occupy all the time and major crimes go uninvestigated. The biggest crime wave that has been running counter to the general improvement in compliance has been fraud. But the investigation of fraud is usually very time consuming and requiring considerable expertise and knowledge. Not only that but accountant are paid  much more to keep people out of jail rather than get them their just desserts. It is even hard to get convictions because fraud cases are so long and complicated and juries are easily bamboozled by good defense lawyers. Dealing with this issue puts prominent people at risk – people who have friends in high places. Conrad Black, for example, is probably confident that his friend George will now come to his aid – all other avenues having been exhausted. It is not coincidental that the media conglomerate owners like to keep attention focussed on issues like fare evasion. And not the much more damaging activities of the wealthy who like to ensure they pay as little tax as possible.

Do you know anyone who thinks it is wrong to find a way to declare less income to the tax authorities? Yet the uproar over people of welfare who get caught up in that systems complexities is out of all proportion to the size of the offences, when much bigger and more succesful cheats get away with it all the time and are praised for their business acumen.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 21, 2008 at 10:53 am

Posted in criminality

4 Responses

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  1. Here’s an anecdote. At the truck border crossing, the lines often extend past an intersection. We were in line and observed cars regularly blocking or partially blocking the intersection when the light changed. Then, one car actually stopped at the line until there was space beyond the intersection. The next car did the same and soon after, both lanes were behaving properly, and the intersection was clear when the light changed. I don’t know how long this phenomenon lasted, but peer pressure can be a good thing sometimes.


    November 21, 2008 at 11:54 am

  2. There is another school of thought. That being, “who the heck is stupid enough to send cash through the mail?”. Many transit authorities have figured out that one sure way to dealing with graffiti is to remove it promptly. Systems that let graffiti profligate only experience ever increasing amounts of graffiti as it is perceived that nobody cares. I would bet that you would spend much less on a timely graffiti removal program that you would on bolstering your security forces to try and “catch people in the act”.

    I agree that the zero tolerance approach only encourages mindlessness. There is an onus upon people to take sensible precautions for themselves. Never expect the world to give you a free ride. You should live life expecting that the world owes you nothing yet seek to help those who are in genuine need. Respect is often only given when you have given it first yourself. You can either spend a lot of money forcing people to act them the way you want, or you could put a little thought into things and spend less money by motivating people to act the way you want them too.

    Do people in Amsterdam ride their bikes en masse out of a sense or guilt or because the road network makes it easy for them? The answer is as simple as that. The tough part is getting people to turn their thoughts in the other direction. Think less about enforcement and more about motivation.


    November 21, 2008 at 9:42 pm

  3. Speaking of Lord Black: From Florida cell, Black rails against U.S. prison rates.

    He’s concluded that putting lots of people in prison, and the War On Drugs in particular, is a bad idea. It’s hilarious when a “right-winger” has an epiphany like this. It invariably requires personal experience.


    November 24, 2008 at 10:23 am

  4. Who is advocating a “zero tolerance” policy towards petty crime?

    I suggest you read the original “Broken Windows” article from the Atlantic:


    November 24, 2008 at 8:50 pm

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