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From the Ground Up

Please complete the following multiple-choice sentence:

It is socially acceptable in my community to ________.


b.drive without a valid inspection sticker on my vehicle.

c.Both a and c.

d.Neither a nor c.

Notice that we qualified the sentence with the term, “socially acceptable.” Littering and driving without a valid inspection sticker are each illegal acts. Nevertheless, just because something is illegal does not mean that it is socially acceptable.

Many communities are facing social and civil problems to a degree that most older residents find unfathomable. Those residents were raised in an era when things that were socially unacceptable were often quite different than they are today. Community leaders are searching for anything to improve the situation.

Does it matter what is socially unacceptable? There is some compelling research that says tolerance levels of minor crimes, such as those above, contribute to more crime and civil disobedience.

A 1990 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology documented the research of R.B. Cialdini, R.R. Reno and C.A. Kallgren on the effect of people littering or not littering depended on the amount of litter already on the ground.

In the study, people walking into an amusement park were given a handbill advertising an entertainment program later that evening. As people — now research subjects — walked down a path they were faced with the fact that there were no trash receptacles in place. Subjects walked down a path that had been prepared with either zero, one, two, four, eight or 16 handbills strewn about, apparently by other visitors.

The question the researchers wanted answered was: Did the amount of existing litter influence littering by the subjects?

The researchers found that on the path where zero or one piece of litter was present, 17 subjects littered and 102 did not; on the path where two or four pieces of litter were present 28 subjects littered and 91 did not; and on the path where eight or 16 pieces of litter were present 49 subjects littered and 71 did not.

In other words, where there was zero or one piece of litter, 14.3% of the people littered, where there were two or four pieces of litter, 23.5% littered, and where there were eight or 16 pieces, 40.8% of the subjects littered.

For communities, this research points out the fact that keeping the physical space clean and litter-free is an important factor in the amount of litter that will be thrown. By the way, that is why the Mississippi Department of Transportation spends more than $1 million a year in an attempt to keep litter off the highways.

If that is not done, then even more litter will be thrown.

Does it follow that a cleaner neighborhood will mean a safer neighborhood? Again, let’s turn to the research.

The most-quoted research comes from George Kelling, a professor in the School of Justice at Rutgers University and a research fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Catherine M. Coles, a research associate at the Kennedy School.

They are the authors of “Fixing Broken Windows — Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities,” the best-selling book that dealt with the relationship between crime prevention and civil disorder in public places. Kelling and Coles use the metaphor of a broken window to explain the phenomenon.

If a commercial establishment has a window that is broken, people who pass by will conclude that no one cares or is in charge. In time, a few more windows will be broken by rock throwers. Soon, all of the windows will be broken, and passersby will conclude that no one cares about the building, therefore no one cares about the street and therefore no one cares about the neighborhood. Only criminals or the foolish will appear to have any business in this unprotected area. Or, as the authors put it, “Small disorders lead to larger and larger ones, and perhaps even to crime.”

Kelling and Coles put their research and theories to the test and consulted with police departments around the country, “…from the New York City subways to the public parks of Seattle.”

This book should be required reading for every police officer in the United States.

Because of the above research it is getting very frustrating for this writer and many others to observe how our communities are dealing with these issues. We know what causes some of these things and we know what works. We must begin taking care of some of these broken windows and littered streets because the message that we are sending with them is that we no longer care.

So, how do we begin? The answer can be found in chapter six of “Fixing Broken Windows.” It’s on the shelves of your local bookstore or on one of the Internet bookstore sites.

‘Um, officer…’

In closing, I had an experience the other day that was the genesis for this column.

I was sitting in my car at a traffic light when an old clunker of a pickup truck with no license plate, a cracked front window and no inspection sticker pulled up alongside of me. Inside were two passengers moving back and forth and up and down to loud music.

When the traffic light turned green, the truck pulled away in a cloud of blue exhaust smoke. Litter in the form of candy and fast food wrappers swirled up from the bed of the truck as the vehicle gained speed. Behind it was a police patrol car occupied by a “low-ridin’” uniformed officer who apparently never gave the pick-up truck in front of him a second glance.

But wait, you say. The officer was probably on his way to a call. Okay, I’ll give him the benefit of that doubt.

The things that are socially acceptable in my community are not what they used to be.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.


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