Staring Down Vandalism

Surprisingly, modern American cities and villages of the Early Roman Empire have something in common: they have been invaded by the same marauders, vandals.

In the Roman Empire, that’s Vandals with a capital “V.” The Vandals were East Germanic people who overran Gaul, Spain and northern Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries, and sacked Rome in 455. According to historical accounts, they earned a reputation for plundering, pirating and otherwise wreaking havoc.

The modern-day vandal is spelled with a lower case “v,” but the wreaking of havoc in American cities–while not on the same political plane as invading armies–is still causing parks and recreation professionals across the country to wail and gnash their teeth.

Who’s To Blame?

A vandal in today’s context is someone who willfully or maliciously defaces or destroys public or private property. Vandalism is a pervasive–and in many places an increasing–drain on public resources and a concern for officials.

“This is the worst I have seen in 27 years,” said Mario Parenti, the outgoing director of parks and recreation of a city in the Chicago area. Quoted in an article on vandalism in an August 2 newspaper article, he said, “Kids don’t really have a whole lot to do, and that causes problems.” Incidents included a garbage can set on fire, obscene language written on park benches and trellises dismantled.

It is true incidents tend to increase during summer. Some estimates put incidents involving youth at 90 percent of all cases. The Kent, Wash., Parks and Recreation Department issued an announcement on its Web site, putting vandals on notice and soliciting citizens for assistance.

“While walking our trails, driving by or using our parks, we strongly encourage anyone who witnesses an act of vandalism being committed to call 9-1-1 immediately and report it,” the announcement urged. It went on to list the parks office number to report vandalism already committed, but not witnessed. “We want our parks to be clean, safe and appealing. Vandals truly ruin that for all of us,” the announcement concluded.

It should be noted the term “youth” can have different parameters. To some, a 20-year-old is still a “youth,” but seemingly old enough to know better. However, there are incidents where young adults engage in acts of vandalism.

Defining Vandalism

Then again, it depends on how one defines vandalism. In his book, The Psychology of Vandalism, author Dr. Arnold P. Goldstein refers to the definition of vandalism as a “hodgepodge concept.” Goldstein has invested his life in research and education regarding aggressive and asocial behavior among children and youths. He has authored more than 100 books on the subject.

Goldstein points out the definition, sources and remediation of vandalism have long been a concern in American society. He cites articles dating to the turn of the 20th century, containing passages that easily could be mistaken for today’s world.

After researching more than 75 years of articles, he finds “from these and later sources there emerged equally numerous and diverse definitions of just what vandalism is.”

He provides a laundry list, ranging from “a willful act of physical damage that lowers the aesthetic or economic value of an object or area,” to “all forms of property destruction, deliberate or not.”

No matter how precise the definition, there is no doubt vandalism in its many forms has increased over time across the country and around the world.

However, Goldstein notes that evaluation of the references reveals a steady buildup of material in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but in the ‘80s, writing about the nature of vandalism and its reduction virtually ceased.

“My hypothesis regarding this abrupt near-cessation of written evidence of professional interest in vandalism as a focus of inquiry rests on the notion of ‘downsizing deviance,’” Goldstein wrote. In layman’s terms, he explains “downsizing deviance” as a creeping indifference to lower levels of a given transgression as higher levels of transgressions increase. In other words, society today has become numb to acts of vandalism that 20 years ago might have spurred a citizens’ intervention.

Another way of stating this is if lower levels of vandalism–such as trashing an area or spray painting buildings–are not acknowledged and addressed by citizens and authorities, eventually that conduct becomes the accepted norm.

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