In 2008, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands conducted experiments to observe people’s behaviour in conditions of order and disorder. One involved placing an envelop with five Euros sticking out in a mailbox, clearly visible to passers-by.
When the mailbox was clean, only about one in 10 passers-by stole the money. When the same mailbox was covered in graffiti, however, thefts rose to about three out of every 10 passers-by. This was one of several experiments that have been carried out to test the ‘broken window’ theory that emerged in the late 1970s, and which argues that untended disorder and minor offenses lead to serious crime and urban decay.
The writer, Malcolm Gladwell, popularised the theory in his book, The Tipping Point, and its contribution to brining down the rate of violent crime in New York City in the 1980s. Despite widespread debate on causation and correlation, several experiments since prove what common sense should tell you for free: You are more likely to be mugged at Clock Tower in downtown Kampala than at Acacia Mall.
The two regular readers of this column might recall this subject many months ago, when we postulated why Kololo does not have signage warning people of fines for pissing on the streets.
We return to the subject due to yet another presidential directive giving the police two days to show plans to deal with a surge in violent crime.
The directive came after a Daily Monitor cover story revealed how city residents were living in fear of armed gangs that attack homes, with apparent impunity, often harming residents before taking off with property. The story referenced at least six incidents in the past fortnight in and around the city – and that is by no means an exhaustive list.
A large part of the surge in violent crime is a predictable outcome of poverty, youth unemployment and income inequality. These require deep reforms that are often painful and slow to show results.
But it also reflects failed policing, a failure of law and order, and urban decay. For every house break-in there is a missing manhole cover sold to scrap metal dealers or a streetlight shining bright from some middle-class compound.
For years, we warned against turning the police away from their basic work into a partisan political militia that hobnobbed with the flotsam and jetsam of the criminal underworld to maintain the regime, rather than law and order. This violent crime is the bastard child of that defilement. Melons, when planted, do not bear apples.
The change in police leadership does not necessarily signal a return to basics, neither does the appointment of military cadres to the top echelons suggest a return to civilian roots. Do not expect a public auction of teargas trucks to buy ambulances.
Within this limited mandate, the police should focus on being more visible and cracking hard on ‘soft’ crimes. For instance, this newspaper has been running a campaign to encourage discipline and restraint among motorists. Many, out of their own upbringing and conscience, have heeded, but even the matatu miscreants toe the line when traffic police are on hand to enforce the law.
Now imagine every car found not obeying the rules was impounded, kept at Namboole Stadium for a week, and the owner fined Shs500,000 for towing and custody. If we did this for two months discipline would return to the streets. Simultaneously we would deal with the spare-parts gangs in downtown Kisekka Market, deploy armed police officers on the streets to deal with phone snatchers, and raid the scrap metal dealerships for road furniture, and so on.
There are two obvious outcomes. First, citizens are more likely to trust the police if it is responsive and professional. Going to a station to report a stolen phone or laptop and having a police officer give you a telephone number to call and bargain with the thief, is not how you build confidence or trust.
Second, a young man who gets away with routinely grabbing phones in the traffic will, before long, graduate to grabbing car keys or robbing banks. Dealing with hygiene issues can prevent many diseases; similarly, to tackle violent crime the police must start with minor crimes and win the trust of those they claim to serve and protect. Put another way, a city that can’t build public toilets or arrest those who piss in the streets is just taking the piss.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org.