In Our View: Grappling with Graffiti

Vancouver embarks on sociological experiment with vandalism proposal

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They might or might not be aware of it, but Vancouver’s city councilors are embarking upon a sociological experiment.

City leaders lastweek discussed a growing graffiti problem in the community and began exploring ways to address it. Among the ideas: New criminal codes to assist with the prosecution of vandals; new civil penalties for parents of minor offenders; and the addition of “maintained free of graffiti” to the city’s property-maintenance code. In addition, officials are asking the two dozen or so businesses that sell spray paint within the city limits to place the cans in a locked display case or near the cash register to deter shoplifters. The changes are likely to come when the council votes on amending city codes in late May or June because, as councilor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said, “We have no teeth. We have nothing in the Vancouver Municipal Code” for dealing with graffiti.

By putting up a fight against vandals — particularly with a requirement that buildings be maintained free of graffiti — Vancouver is jumping into the debate over the “Broken Windows Theory.” Social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the idea in 1982, explaining: “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 pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags or refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

The theory is that small crimes that are allowed to linger in the public eye indicate permissiveness on the part of the populace, which encourages other small crimes and eventually leads to big crimes. New York City used that reasoning to embrace a zero-tolerance stance on seemingly petty crimes in the 1990s, going so far as to paint over graffiti on subway cars every night and to take a firm stand against subway fare jumpers. The rate of crimes, both large and small, fell precipitously, and author Malcolm Gladwell presented a case study of the phenomenon in his book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”

That is where the debate comes in, as sociologists have spent the past 20 years producing competing studies about whether the “Broken Windows Theory” is what led to a drop in the crime rate in New York — or whether other factors played a primary role.

For Vancouver’s purposes, a couple of logical steps would be most effective: Prohibit minors from buying spray paint; have businesses keep cans in a locked case; make graffiti a separate crime instead of lumping it under “malicious mischief”; and require building owners to paint over graffiti. Each of these, in their own small way, will either target graffiti at the source or indicate that such vandalism will not be allowed to sully the landscape. We can empathize with building owners who are frequent targets of vandalism and grow weary of painting over graffiti, but such repairs signal that maintaining appearances is meaningful to local residents.

Graffiti in Vancouver is not a pervasive problem that is threatening our way of life, yet allowing it to linger represents a certain carelessness on the part of the public. The guess here is that city councilors — and residents — have little interest in conducting a sociology experiment. We just want to demonstrate that having a nice-looking city is important.