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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Texas Killing Fields and Political Differences on the Local Environment

Last night I was at home reading 50 Cent's autobiography, From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a time in Southside Queens.  While reading about 50 Cent's past as a street hustler, I became intensely interested in a story on 48 Hours Mystery.  I usually don't watch 48 Hours Mystery, but found myself immediately drawn to the story that they were covering.

Photos of victims who were found in the Texas Killing Fields
Last night's episode was about an area that locals have nicknamed the "Texas Killing Fields," or the "Highway of Hell."  The area earned this nickname because of its grisly past.  Since 1970, law enforcement have recovered 30 dead bodies (mostly of whom are young girls) in this vast, desolate stretch of bayou.  On a sidenote: This story inspired a recent film called The Texas Killing Fields.  I'd be curious to know if anyone out there thinks that the film is worth seeing. 

Anyways, at one point in the show, a detective reflected on how this area was an ideal place for someone to do evil.  He described how The Killing Fields were immediately next to a freeway, providing offenders easy access to a dark and dense area where they could rape/torture/kill/dump bodies without ever being seen.  In other words, the local environment provided a kind of "natural cover" for criminals to do/get away with crimes that would be more difficult to do in other environments.
A movie adaptation of the area

During this part of the show, I started to think about the different ways in which local environments create opportunities for people to commit/get away with crime.  Although I disagree with some aspects of the theory, Wilson and Kelling's highly cited "Broken Window's" theory is one version of how social scientists have been thinking about the local environment's role in crimes.  For those who are unfamiliar, the Broken Windows theory basically suggests that criminals are more likely to commit crimes in areas that look dilapidated and unkempt.  At the heart, the Broken Windows Theory is an interpretive theory of crime; criminals assess local environments and choose particular areas in which they feel that they can get away with things.  A dilapidated and bombed out community with broken windows signals that residents in the area are less likely to intervene or even care that different kinds of crimes are occurring in their area.

Over time, the Broken Windows theory has been replaced by more systematic analyses that link environmental characteristics and crime (see Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush's pioneering work), but the Broken Windows theory has still had a tremendous influence on policymaking, particularly as it relates to community redevelopment/gentrification.  Policymakers feel that if they can put various amenities into down and out areas (e.g. coffee shops, community centers, mixed-income housing), that they can create an environment that is unfriendly to criminal activity.  While gentrification is typically condemned in social science circles--particularly amongst the more liberal factions of social scientists--policymakers and law enforcement maintain that these methods are proven ways to decrease crime.  Critics, meanwhile, argue that redevelopment/gentrification often displaces the most vulnerable populations and also simply encourages criminals to relocate where they commit crime.  

Natural Cover in the vast Texas Killing Fields
I've never felt totally resolved on this debate and feel even more conflicted after seeing the Texas Killing Fields story.  While watching footage of the vast and undeveloped area where dozens of little girls have been recovered, I kept thinking "How would this have worked if the Highway of Hell was littered with small communities and areas that didn't provide a natural cover for people to do these things?"  I have felt similar tensions while conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Philadelphia with a stick-up boy, who remarked on how the poorly lit and bombed out areas near dive bars provided him with a natural cover to "get the drop" on unsuspecting victims.

In the end, I feel that there is really strange tension between law enforcement/policymakers and social scientists on the issue of redevelopment/gentrification.  Both sides seem to agree that crime is a bad thing and that the best research/policymaking should figure out how to reduce crime and increase community safety.  But, in spite of this shared sentiment, both sides are typically very far apart when it comes to redevelopment/gentrification.  My sense is that empiricism isn't the only thing separating these two views on the environment.  It would be nice if politics didn't prevent various parties from coming together and developing testable and replicable strategies to design environments that discourage crime.


  1. Have you watched 'Texas Killing Fields' yet? I discovered this post of yours after brushing up on how they went about making the film. It was a disappoint, to say the least. The filmmakers had a real opportunity to make a profoundly dark film but instead they opted for the typical by-the-numbers Hollywood treatment.

  2. http://jimcarrollsblog.blogspot.com/