The Broken Windows Theory of Policing

The Broken Windows Theory of Policing is based on the assertion that crime and general lack of law and order in an urban environment are fostered by visible antisocial and criminal activity. It was first introduced by Wilson and Kelling, (1982) through their article in a March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The theory proposes a policing approach that targets minor offenses such as jaywalking and loitering to stem criminal activity from escalating to more serious cases. The theory drew from the research of psychologist Philip Zimbardo who argued to the effect that disorder (“windows” in the metaphor) heightens fear among citizens and causes them to subsequently withdraw social accountability and control.

The theory was most notably applied in New York in the 1990s under police commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. His department assigned plainclothes officers to crack down on misdemeanor offenders such as turnstile jumpers. As at the time of his resignation in 1996 felonies in New York were down 40% and the homicide rate halved, (Roeder & Bowling, 2015). The broken theory was in essence a change of tack from previous policing approaches that were primarily concerned with crimes that were most detrimental to the victim such as murder or rape. The theory on the other hand described serious criminal activity as a chain reaction starting from civil disorder, the implication being that serious crimes would not occur if disorderly conduct was nipped in the bud.

Further, the theory correlates the fear that citizens develop due to insecurity to withdrawal from the community and deterioration of social controls hence increasing criminal activity. The disorder can be classified as a physical or social disorder, ((Jean, 2008). The latter is exemplified with run-down buildings, abandoned construction sites, and broken windows. Conversely, the former typically involves boisterous parties, noisy drunkards, and aggressive panhandlers. This distinction is important in exposing the nuances of the implications of this policy. For instance, it is noteworthy that the line between disorder and crime is rather thin. One certain thing is that the two types of disorders cause fear among citizens.

One glaring upside to the broken windows theory is that imposes upon criminal justice stakeholders to look inward in attempts to effect change rather than an outward social policy. The theory is perceived by many to yield positive results at lower costs through alteration of policing methodology. The popularity of the broken windows theory in law enforcement is not in doubt. The theory is, however, criticized due to little empirical evidence directly relating unchallenged disorder to spikes in crime. The reality is that the task of evaluating the theory is a challenging one. A study by Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015) only attributed a modest impact to policing strategies that are centralized on disorder. They found that problem-oriented interventions yielded more positive results than outright aggressive maintenance of order.

The first challenge in evaluating the theory arises from the differences in implementation. The New York City implementation attempted unsuccessfully to follow the Wilson and Kelling, (1982) blueprint more closely. In other jurisdictions though, the policy amounted to zero-tolerance policing that aggressively tackles disorder and punishes misdemeanor offenders. These varied implementations make it unfair to judge the policy more generally.

Another concern regarding the policy was the treatment of offenders. The policy implementation in some cities was characterized by wanton arrests on account of misdemeanor offenses. This method however did not capture the spirit of the Kelling and Coles (1997) approach that proposes community outreach and officer discretion. On the contrary, they did not envision all encounters between police and offending citizens ending up in arrests. They prescribe tackling disorder through more of a partnership with residents in ways that maintain respect for civil liberties and human decency. The jury is still out on whether the New York City Police Department (NYPD) successfully adopted the broken windows policy. What is clear is that its implementation is more complex and difficult to assess.

The other criticism of the theory and its implementation by the NYPD was the use of “stop and frisk” which leans more towards zero-tolerance rather than positive community policing. At the heart of this criticism is the contention that there is little evidence making direct links between reduction in serious crimes and disorder enforcement. Research by Skogan (1992) in six cities seemed to show this link but would later be rebutted by Harcourt (2009) suggesting no significant relationship between serious crime and disorder.

There’s also much debate as to whether the broken windows policy was solely responsible for crime reduction in New York, (Eck & Maguire, 2005).  Some argue that the police played a significant role, (, Kelling & Sousa, 2006), while others do not credit police tactics at all, (Harcourt & Ludwig, 2006). Another notable concern about the policy is the possibility that citizen perceptions about and satisfaction with the police may be undermined despite the effective implementation of the policy. Nevertheless, research shows that the broken windows policy is most effective when implemented in combination with community policing, (Braga et al. 1999).

References

Braga, A. A., Welsh, B. C., & Schnell, C. (2015). Can Policing Disorder Reduce Crime? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 52(4), 567–588. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427815576576

BRAGA, A. A., WEISBURD, D. L., WARING, E. J., MAZEROLLE, L. G., SPELMAN, W., & GAJEWSKI, F. (1999). Problem-oriented policing in violent crime places: A randomized controlled experiment*. Criminology37(3), 541-580. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.1999.tb00496.x

Eck, J. E., & Maguire, E. R. (2005). Have changes in policing reduced violent crime? An assessment of the evidence. In The Crime Drop in America, Revised Edition (pp. 207-265). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511616167.008

Harcourt, B. E. (2009). Illusion of order: The false promise of broken windows policing. Harvard University Press.

Harcourt, B., & Ludwig, J. (2006). Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment. University of Chicago Law Review73(1). https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclrev/vol73/iss1/14

Jean, P. K. (2008). Pockets of crime: Broken windows, collective efficacy, and the criminal point of view. University of Chicago Press.

Kelling, G. L., & Coles, C. M. (1997). Fixing broken windows: Restoring order and reducing crime in our communities. Simon & Schuster.

Roeder, O., & Bowling, J. (2015). What Caused the Crime Decline? Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/what-caused-crime-decline

Skogan, W. G. (1992). Disorder and decline: Crime and the spiral of decay in American neighborhoods. University of California Press.

Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982, March 1). March 1982 issue. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/toc/1982/03/

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