Late last Friday night the vehicle owned by the charity that I work for, Sustainable Coastlines, was stolen from right in front of where I live.
This is the vehicle that has been used to travel to hundreds of schools to educate tens of thousands of people and remove over 40 tonnes of rubbish from the coast.
After finding out that our sign-written 4WD had not somehow been towed, I went down to the street to look at where it had been parked for broken glass and realised not just that we (and the thousands of school students, volunteers and offenders that we work with) were victims of crime, but that there was a used condom and various other pieces of litter on the street.
Suffice to say that while I don't feel unsafe in Upper Queen Street, with its proximity to the red light district, it is probably not the most savoury of areas you can find. No matter how much I pick up the streets continue to get covered in litter around here.
No matter how much the council spends on cleaning it off, the walls continue to get covered in graffiti.
It reinforced my belief that if our communities were in better order, people would be less likely to commit serious crimes.
The psychology behind this idea is called the 'broken window theory'. This states that if broken windows are left unrepaired and streets are left covered in rubbish, then more litter accumulates and more windows in the affected will get broken because people see that it is obvious that no one cares about that place, so they continue to treat it badly.
Famed New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took the theory to the streets with a "zero tolerance" policy in the nineties, where petty crimes were strictly enforced and it was proven that both petty and serious crime rates abruptly fell and continued to do so for ten years.
More recently in the notoriously dangerous Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, the broken window theory has been again credited for a rapid drop in serious crime.
The idea is that small crimes such as littering can be "gateway" actions that - when the offender gets away with it regularly - make way for more serious infractions, and if you can nip offenders in the bud when they first start to head astray, then they are less likely to continue a life of crime.
When it comes to littering however, we have long believed that a basic level of caring about the place you live is an important value for people in communities everywhere. Having a sense of pride of place is a starting point for this.
Over the past four years we have done a lot of work educating offenders through the Department of Corrections Community Probation Service program. I would estimate that I have spent 50 days during this time (most of them as an unpaid volunteer) educating offenders and utilising their labour to collect data from coastal rubbish. These programs have offered many of these guys and girls (who usually have little to be proud of) a simple reason to look after their natural surroundings.
We didn't realise that it would happen, but after running extensive surveys with the crews who had received a presentation that explained why it was important not to litter and then witnessed first hand how bad it can be on our beaches, they indicated an intention to change their behaviour positively. When the Herald on Sunday contacted one of the supervisors we even found out that none of the people that had been through our program had reoffended nearly a year later.
So what do you, the citizen think about cracking down on petty crime?
With regard to litter, I for one would prefer that we didn't have so much in our streets, neighbourhoods and beaches.
I will continue to work as hard as I can to stop this from happening but to really win this battle quickly, we will need a community-wide shift in values. Instead of relying just on the police and council driven fines, we need people to shun and reject the disenchanted few who decide that they will spoil it for everyone else.
If you are in Auckland and you see someone littering out the window of a car, you can call 0800 IN THE BIN and they will receive a fine. If you are elsewhere, look it up with your local council and find out what you need to do to report littering as a start point.
It has long been said that a community will be safer if people feel a sense of ownership and responsibility towards the area and this is a concept I totally believe in and have dedicated my life to impact. If anyone has any ideas on how we can build pride in communities, please share them as a comment below or send me an email.
Maybe if we all work together on this, charities will stop getting their tools stolen.