For the past month or so, there have been several reports about murders and dismemberments. This has unsettled the public, so after taking over as minister of the interior, Hsu Kuo-yung (徐國勇) has announced that he will raise police visibility to reduce crime. The question is whether this will put society at ease.
In the 19th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim proposed the anomie theory. According to Durkheim’s theory, when social norms break down into a state of anomie — where it lacks the usual social or ethical standards — people will experience a lack of purpose and no longer know how to behave. That is said to lead to social disorder and rising crime rates.
The success of public order does not depend on falling crime statistics, nor does it depend on pretty policies; it depends on whether people can walk down the street without fear of being harassed.
In 1970, when police in New York began patrolling on foot, the results were miraculous, because everyone felt the police presence, crime was dealt with quickly and police officers could communicate directly with residents.
Following these results, George Kelling and James Wilson published an article called “Broken Windows” in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. According to the broken window theory, “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”
The increased police visibility put residents at ease and dispelled thoughts of crime in potential offenders.
The biggest proponent of the broken window theory was Rudy Giuliani, who served as mayor of New York for eight years beginning in 1994. He maintained public order not by prosecuting cases against the mafia, as he did during his time as a US attorney, but by focusing on the prevention of minor crimes, such as removing graffiti in subways and the strict enforcement of a ban on graffiti.
This might seem to be simply a way to keep the subways clean, but by enforcing ad hoc inspections and checks, any attempt at criminal behavior, such as armed robbery, selling drugs and theft, could be prevented thanks to early detection. As crime rates dropped, it became an important model.
The only problem was that results in cities that emulated New York were generally not very good. One main reason was the restrictions imposed by limited access to resources. If the police workforce was not increased, the workload for police officers increased, and that could easily result in perfunctory performance of duties simply in response to orders, creating waste.
With data from the Ministry of Civil Service showing that there is a shortage of 5,000 police officers in Taiwan, raising police visibility would result in an even greater shortage. However, no one knows how many more officers would be needed or how many years it would take to train them.
This is also why, as the public wants nothing more than social stability and public order, Hsu’s statements and pledges must not be allowed to just become another pretty slogan.
Wu Ching-chin is an associate professor of law at Aletheia University.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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