Private Conflict, Public Disorder and Crime in Boston

June 2015


broken-windowDisorder and crime in neighborhoods “emerge not from public cues but from private disorder within the community,” according to an article by BARI Research Director Daniel O’Brien and BARI Director Robert J. Sampson that appears in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

While “broken windows” theory is “an influential model of neighborhood change, there is disagreement over whether public disorder leads to more serious crime,” note O’Brien and Sampson in “Public and Private Spheres of Neighborhood Disorder: Assessing Pathways to Violence Using Large-Scale Digital Records.” They go on to note that large-scale administrative data – such as 911 calls and other calls for city services – provide new opportunities to examine broken windows theory and alternative models of neighborhood change, including models that distinguish between public and private disorder.

In particular, O’Brien and Sampson used two databases from 121 residential areas in Boston in 2011 and 2012 – 1,000,000+ 911 dispatches and indicators of physical disorder from 200,000+ requests for nonemergency services – that provided six dimensions of physical and social disorder and crime. A cross-lag longitudinal analysis revealed eight pathways by which one form of disorder or crime in 2011 predicted a significant increase in another in 2012. The analysis indicates while “traditional interpretations of broken windows emphasize the role of public disorder, private conflict most strongly predicted future crime.” For example:

“Private conflict and public violence are likely to increase in severity over time, leading to the more consistent use of guns,” they write. “Notably, this progression has been largely invisible to previous work because its primary antecedents occur behind closed doors, out of view of many measurement techniques.” They speculate that people facing stressful conflicts with others may respond violently to issues within their community, neglect private property, and be less inclined to take a stand against neighborhood decline. Such examples of external disorder may also stress individuals in the community, intensifying conflicts within private lives. They also note that that the findings demonstrate “how ‘big data’ from administrative records, when properly measured and interpreted, represent a growing resource for studying neighborhood change.”

More information about the article is online at

Click here to hear O’Brien discuss some of these findings in an interview on Radio Boston, which airs on WBUR-FM/

Click here to read an article about the research by Richard Florida that appeared on The Atlantic’s CityLab website.

Click here to read an article about the research that appeared in The Boston Globe

Articles describing the research have also appeared on the websites for Pacific Standard, the Medical Daily Grapevine,, and Northeastern University.

Published On: June 1, 2015 |
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