Wednesday, August 11, 2010
The Broken Window Effect and Petty Assault
Playing the titular role of Harry Brown, Michael Caine plays a retiree living in a crime-plagued council estate in Southern London. By day he visits his comatose wife in the hospital and enjoys the occasional drink at the local tavern. By night he hides out from the brazen and fearless criminals who inhabit his neighbourhood.
The law has given them nothing to fear. Continually insisting that crime is decreasing in their neighbourhood, they are able to perpetrate petty assaults on the weak and defenseless at will, and often commit more violent assaults uninhibited by police.
Finally, when his friend Leonard Attwell (David Bradley) is killed, Brown decides to fight back.
Leonard has been mercilessly harrassed by a pack of gang-affiliated youths on the subway until one night he can't take it any longer. With police declining to help him, he takes a bayonette with him to defend himself. Instead, he's stabbed to death.
Brown, having lost his last friend in the world -- having previously lost his comatose wife -- can take no more. He buys a gun from a local drug dealer and sets about the task of cleaning up his neighbourhood.
A former Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland, Brown proves to be a formidable force in his neighbourhood until his age finally catches up with him.
Even as a heart attack slows his progress in hunting down Leonard's murderer, his age makes it difficult for Detective Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) to convince her superior officers that Brown is the vigilante wiping out the criminal element that has infested his community.
In criminology, there is a theory known as the broken windows theory. This theory argues that when petty crimes such as vandalism are rigorously pursued, crime will be halted.
The theory holds that something such as a broken window serves as a visual cue to criminals that such crimes are tolerated, and it encourages them to attempt more serious acts. If petty crimes are allowed to go unaddressed for long enough, very soon crime will spiral out of control.
Harry Brown clearly applies the broken windows theory. There is certainly a broad difference between spitting in the face of an elderly man and the brazen and cowardly murder of a woman from the back of a motorcycle, as portrayed at the beginning of the film.
But through the process of normsetting -- whereby the permitted behaviour of a neighbourhood is established -- the tolerance of such minor assaults sends a message that security of the person is not protected. Once security of the person is unrespected, crimes such as aggravated assault and murder are nearly inevitable.
Not only does it send a message to criminals that such matters are tolerated, but it also sends a message to the citizenry that they will not see crimes against them enforced, nor will they be protected from acts of retaliation should they report crimes against them.
It's situation such as this that lead to a glut of unreported crimes that in many cases can contribute to any decrease in criminal activity. Law enforcement officials -- particularly those who don't work on the front line of enforcement -- convince themselves that their crime reduction strategies are working when, in fact, they are failing badly.
Left in the lurch are innocent and otherwise-defenseless citizens, especially the elderly.
Not all the Harry Browns of the world are fortunate enough to be ex-Royal Marines with fighting skills honed battling the IRA. Society has an obligation to protect them. Should society literally choose not to do so, the final recourse must be vigilante justice.
Considering that vigilante justice has socially-destructive elements of its own, it must be avoided at all costs. If that means that law enforcement must more rigorously deal with crimes they don't consider worthwhile, that is what will have to happen.