On Crime As Science (A Neighbor At a Time)

By Dan Hurley
Boston, MA (January 6, 2004)- Dr. Felton Earls was on the street, looking for something at ground level that would help explain his theories about the roots of crime. He found it across from a South Side housing project, in a community garden of frost-wilted kale and tomatoes.


“That couldn’t be more perfect,” said Dr. Earls, a 61-year-old professor of human behavior and development at the Harvard School of Public Health. Gazing at a homemade sign for the garden at the corner of East Brookline Street and Harrison Avenue, he pointed out four little words: “Please respect our efforts.”
“We’ve been besieged to better explain our findings,” he said. For over 10 years, Dr. Earls has run one of the largest, longest and most expensive studies in the history of criminology. “We always say, It’s all about taking action, making an effort.”
Dr. Earls and his colleagues argue that the most important influence on a neighborhood’s crime rate is neighbors’ willingness to act, when needed, for one another’s benefit, and particularly for the benefit of one another’s children. And they present compelling evidence to back up their argument.
His research is, in essence, about the health of communities, not just about crime. “I am concerned about crime, “he said, “but my background is in public health. We look at kids growing up in neighborhoods across a much wider range than just crime: drug use, school performance, birth weights, asthma, sexual behavior.”
The data gathered for it, with a precision rarely seen in social science, directly contradicted Dr. Wilson’s notions. From June to October 1995, trained observers drove a sport utility vehicle at 5 miles per hour down every street in 196 carefully selected Chicago neighborhoods.
As they drove, a pair of video recorders, one on each side of the S.U.V., recorded social activities and physical features: litter, graffiti, drug deals, public drinking, everything within the camera’s view. When the researchers were done, 11,408 blocks had been observed and videotaped. Then the police records on homicide, robbery and burglary were pulled for each of these 196 neighborhoods, along with in-person surveys of 8,782 residents.
In a landmark 1997 paper that he wrote with colleagues in the journal Science, and in a subsequent study in The American Journal of Sociology, Dr. Earls reported that most major crimes were linked not to broken windows but to two other neighborhood variables: concentrated poverty and what he calls, with an unfortunate instinct for the dry and off-putting language of social science, collective efficacy.
“If you got a crew to clean up the mess,” Dr. Earls said, “it would last for two weeks and go back to where it was. The point of intervention is not to clean up the neighborhood, but to work on its collective efficacy. If you organized a community meeting in a local church or school, it’s a chance for people to meet and solve problems.
“If one of the ideas that comes out of the meeting is for them to clean up the graffiti in the neighborhood, the benefit will be much longer lasting, and will probably impact the development of kids in that area. But it would be based on this community action — not on a work crew coming in from the outside.”
As for policy implications, Dr. Earls said that rather than focusing on arresting squeegee men and graffiti scrawlers, local governments should support the development of cooperative efforts in low-income neighborhoods by encouraging neighbors to meet and work together. Indeed, cities that sow community gardens, he said, may reap a harvest of not only kale and tomatoes, but safer neighborhoods and healthier children.
Related Resources:
New York Times- On Crime As Science (A Neighbor At a Time)
More Trees = Less Crime
American Community Gardening Association