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Crime fight: Let’s start with minor problems

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Brian Mukalazi

Ever heard of the Broken Windows Theory? Well, this interesting theory is the brainchild of American criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder.

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street and to the entire community.

And because of the failed system, muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, will start to believe that they may never get caught. The potential victims will be intimidated by the prevailing conditions and it will even become less likely to call the police to identify a potential thief or to interfere if a criminal activity actually takes place.

In Uganda today, especially in Kampala City, the Broken Windows Theory is undoubtedly at play: It partly explains why able-bodied people, enough in numbers, on a Kampala street can just look on when a neighbour is being mugged, intimidated or assaulted by thugs.

The crime problem in our city is reaching epidemic proportions. Youth, mostly boys aged between 16 and 25, who started out as petty pickpockets, street beggars, boda boda riders and taxi operators have graduated into hardcore criminals mugging and robbing people in broad daylight all on the watch of police.

The Broken Windows Theory is based on the premise that crime is contagious and a crime epidemic can be reversed by tinkering with the smallest details of society. It is why I believe that we need to start by fixing the ‘broken windows’ and change the signals that invite crime in the first place. Relatively minor problems such as intoxication, loitering, public disorder and immorality are all the equivalent to broken windows and are invitations to more serious crime.

Police should step up the enforcement of the laws against drug abuse, public drunkenness, street begging and public littering and arrest repeat offenders, including those who throw trash on the street or are involved in even relatively minor traffic offences. These seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes are tipping points for violent crime.

Parents need to do more by building stronger homes. Our parents usually affect who we become or the kinds of schools we go to or the friends we have. But if children grow up in homes with absent parents, buffeted by poverty, no one will teach them the difference between right and wrong, and they will be oblivious to what is and what is not appropriate behaviour.

An enormous percentage of those who engage in violent acts come from deeply disturbed backgrounds. But what is even more important than family, weird as it sounds, are the neighbourhoods in which we live. This is a call for local leaders, schools, parents, religious institutions and the general public: Studies of juvenile delinquency show that a child is better off in a good neighbourhood and a troubled family than he or she is in a troubled neighbourhood and a good family. The streets we walk (are they clean or littered with trash?) or the people we encounter play a huge role in shaping who we are and how we act.

At this point, perhaps the government and its law enforcement agencies feel it is not worth their time to pursue the minor problems, particularly when there are plenty of more serious crimes happening in the country. But these seemingly minor problems are symbolic of the collapse of the system and they need urgent fixing.

Mr Brian Mukalazi is the CEO, Talis Consults Ltd