ST. CROIX, Virgin Islands -- After a year of initiatives that appeared to be based on or developed to test the Broken Windows Theory of policing, the V.I. Police Department recently announced that it would be implementing the policy territorywide.
Based on a simple concept first tested out on the streets of Newark, N.J., in the mid-1970s, the Broken Windows Theory was originally more of a sociological experiment than it was a crime-fighting policy, according to the two sociologists who first popularized the concept.
George Kelling and James Wilson contended that a community behaves a certain way based on the social cues its surroundings exhibit. If it appears chaotic and lawless, then it will attract chaos and lawlessness.
Many have attributed the drop in crime in New York City in the 1990s to the theory.
V.I. Police Commissioner Novelle Francis Jr. and St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell have bought into the idea and taken it from isolated strategies to a departmentwide implementation.
Howell first began pushing a number of theoretically similar initiatives -- including saturated patrols and community policing in the housing communities -- about May 2010, when he was still deputy chief.
While he knew about the theory previously, it was not until he and Francis went to New York City in September to meet with the city's police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, that he was convinced.
"That's when I really got behind it," Howell said. "I think the importance of Zero Tolerance became abundantly clear after going to New York."
The theory's name is derived from the example the two sociologists used to explain their theory.
According to Kelling and Wilson, if someone breaks a window in an abandoned building and it is not repaired, then it sends a message to anyone walking by that such behavior is tolerated, and soon other windows will be broken and before long there will be graffiti on the walls, people squatting inside and a general sense of disarray.
As the area becomes increasingly disorderly, it attracts even more disorder.
But if the window is repaired in a timely manner, the community gets a message -- however discreet -- that disorder will not be tolerated.
When it came to policing, the theory encouraged ground patrols in which the officers had constant contact with the public.
The officers were instructed to enforce what otherwise would be considered petty offenses -- panhandling, loitering, public drunkenness and anything that disturbed the sense of order.
The idea is that, by cracking down on the lesser offenses and making people less inclined to break the orderliness that general attitude would expand into the community and there would be fewer assaults, rapes, murders.
New York City's implementation of the theory and the stunning drop in crime that corresponded to it seems to have solidified the theory's prominence.
Here in the Virgin Islands, it appears as if the theory applies more to broken lights than windows.
As Howell and members of the Special Operations Unit began their community policing initiative in St. Croix's housing communities, one of the factors that seems to have proven a concern has been the lighting -- or lack thereof, Howell said.
People with bad intentions have broken lights in areas of housing communities to provide the cover of darkness, making the community appear threatening and dangerous.
Because the Police Department does not fix lights, an array of other agencies and community organizations -- including the V.I. Housing Authority, the V.I. Water and Power Authority, the V.I. Public Works Department, the V.I. Labor Department and the V.I. Human Services Department -- play intricate roles in making sure the program works, Francis said.
It will take the help of all those organizations and the community's involvement to push the program, he said.
The Police Department already has signed a memorandum of agreement with the Housing Authority in support of the initiative.
By fixing the lights, the housing communities are helping to create a safer setting, said V.I. Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham.
"We have identified every light on each complex -- where they are, whether they're working," he said.
Among the 15 public housing developments on St. Croix, there are 254 lights, Graham said. Sixty-two of those lights were not working as of Friday.
"By the end of March, they will be working," he said. "We're going to do weekly inspections and fix them weekly with WAPA."
WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said the authority was preparing for an intensive 10-day operation beginning Friday to fix all the lights in the housing communities. After that, WAPA will help the Housing Authority maintain the lights, she said.
Beyond government, the theory hinges on community involvement, officials said.
"They are direct stakeholders and beneficiaries," Graham said. "This gives us momentum. Once we demonstrate our real commitment to the community, we talk to the community leaders, and they talk to the hardworking residents and are able to get to their hearts and minds. We win when we get to the hearts and minds."
To encourage that relationship between police and residents, the Police Department plans to establish three substations in housing communities on St. Thomas and St. Croix -- most likely at Tutu High Rise, Oswald Harris Court and Bovoni Apartments on St. Thomas, and at Aureo Diaz, John F. Kennedy and William's Delight on St. Croix.
Additionally, Police and Housing Authority officials plan to meet monthly with members of each housing community.
At the meetings, officials expect to speak with residents to find out their concerns and address them quickly.
"You can't go into a neighborhood and identify a problem and not immediately fix it, or they lose the association," Howell said.
"We're going to be held accountable, and the community leaders are going to be held accountable, and we are going to hold the residents accountable," Graham said.
Howell and Francis had similar thoughts on how the Zero Tolerance policy on small crimes will play out -- such as a constant saturated patrol.
"Loitering, vagrancy, individuals being able to gather and the enforcement of marijuana cigarettes," Francis said. "The assembly of people for what we know has to be the sale of narcotics" all will be the focus of aggressive policing.
In addition, there will be increased monitoring for littering, traffic violations and aggressive panhandling, Howell said.
"It has to be constant and consistent -- and it's a lot of work," Francis said. "It should be the responsibility of the entire police force to take the same actions of the saturated patrol every day."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service