TeeJaw Blog

Broken Windows Policing — What Is It?

Posted in crime, Culture, Government and Politics by TeeJaw on Thursday, April 15, 2010, 12: 22 PM

I was talking to the sales manager of a car dealership in a nearby town to where I live when the subject of crime on his car lot came up. He has a problem with auto theft from time to time and relates as how the local police department is not of much help in recovering stolen cars or catching the thieves. He says they as much as told him they don’t really care much about solving auto theft cases. These are property crimes and the police are simply spread too thin and have to concentrate on dangerous personal crimes, the ones in which someone is assaulted or killed.

I wondered to my friend if their chief of police has ever heard of “broken windows policing,” the theory that stopping petty crimes and misdemeanors will result in reducing more serious crimes. It is the practice of policing by which New York City brought it’s murder rate from over 2,000 per year to 500 a year when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. Given the attitude of this particular police agency I doubt their chief knows, or perhaps just does not care, about the theory. My car salesmen friend, a young man who says he is thinking about going into law enforcement, also has never heard of the concept.

Since I have run into many people who have never heard of Broken Windows Policing, a theory of law enforcement that has transformed towns and neighborhoods from wretched crime-ridden hell holes into livable communities, I decided to find out how much I know about it. Since one of the purposes of having a blog is to learn new things and the best way to teach yourself something is to write about it, I decided to write about broken windows policing to see what I already know and what more I could learn.

Broken Windows Policing is a theory first introduced by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in an article they wrote for the March, 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly (now The Atlantic). I read it when it was first published and instinctively knew it was something new and fresh (at least to me), bound for future importance. The whole idea may have already been explored by Sir Robert Peel in the 1830s but I was fairly sure Messrs. Wilson and Kelling had hit on something that was going to matter a great deal. I tucked it away in my memory and didn’t think about again until it became a matter of considerable public discussion while Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York City.

The main thrust of Wilson’s thesis was that the appearance of disorder in a neighborhood (i.e., “broken windows”) sends a subtle message to those inclined to criminal behavior that their behavior will be approved or at least tolerated in this neighborhood. The disorder of the neighborhood says that this is a place where nobody cares what you do, so go for it.

Wilson used the prevalence of broken windows as a metaphor for any condition or element the existence of which would send the message that nobody cares. Allowing people to get away with petty crimes sends the “nobody cares” message the loudest and clearest. Wilson then speculated that there is an indirect link between petty crime and major crime and that this link is established in two (2) distinct ways.

First, petty crime acts as a gateway to more serious crime. Most criminals who commit major crimes start out with petty crimes. Thus, eliminating social tolerance for petty crimes may stop some petty criminals from becoming major criminals.

Second, those who have already moved on to major crime will also continue to commit petty crimes. Thus, Broken Windows Policing will create greater police contact with those criminals. As a result, focusing on petty crime will snare many major criminals into the same net because suspects of petty crime will be found to have outstanding warrants or to be carrying weapons illegally, or to be in possession of drugs or other contraband.

Broken Windows Policing will reduce major crime by, counter-intuitively and indirectly, focusing on petty crime. Crime overall will be reduced as some petty criminals will be dissuaded from major crime (as well as from petty crime) and many more of those who are not dissuaded or who have already graduated to major crime will be caught, sent to prison, and thus are no longer on the street committing crimes.

Of course, police agencies alone cannot assure that we will reap the benefits of Broken Windows policing. That is dependent on other aspects of the criminal justice system such as a fair and efficient court system that protects the innocent and sends the guilty to prison. As with everything in human experience, politics plays an important role.

The conflict between the liberal mindset of offering excuses for bad behavior and the conservative desire to hold people accountable for their actions is brought front and center whenever policies based upon the theory of Broken Windows Policing are implemented.

There are always practitioners of various schools of social science that will opt for ideas that have been tried repeatedly without any success whatsoever while at the same time heavily criticizing policies that have a proven track record of results. These are the intellectuals of the age who become enamored by complex and intricate conjectures based on illogical assumptions and sometime pure fantasy. They are often quick to denounce as “simplistic” a straight forward-common sense idea such as Broken Windows Policing. They never understand that just because something is simple when compared to the complex, that does not make it “simplistic.”

One such academic is Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law at the University of Chicago. Harcourt makes several claims based on statistical studies in his book, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing, to back up his notion that there is no measurable link between neighborhood disorder and the incidence of crime, and that broken windows policing results in numerous negative consequences. Among the contentions made by Harcourt in his book are the following:

  • No reliable empirical evidence exists that broken windows policing will work;
  • Policing petty crimes takes police away from other major crimes;
  • Newton’s law of crime — what goes up must come down — is a better explanation for the fall in crime in New York City;
  • Studies show that moving criminals from disorderly neighborhoods into orderly neighborhoods has a negligible effect on their criminal behavior, as shown in a University of Chicago study called “moving to opportunity;”
  • “Broken Windows” is a cute slogan that’s good for marketing but it rests on a faulty theory. There is no reliable evidence that disorder causes crime;
  • Empirical analysis suggests that disorder and crime do not have a cause and effect relationship and instead have common antecedents in “structural disadvantage and lack of neighborhood trust;”
  • Since police resources are not unlimited any focus on petty crime necessarily takes police away from more serious crime;
  • “Hot spots” policing, more computer technology, etc., will reap greater rewards and be a wiser expenditure of money.
  • George Kelling responds to Harcourt’s charges [the following has been gleaned from various of Professor Keller’s writings most of which may be found on the Manhattan Institute website]:

  • Social science studies provide mixed evidence and will probably never prove the point one way or the other of the link between broken windows policing and serious crime;
  • Broken windows has always maintained that there is an indirect link between disorder and crime;
  • Disorder creates fear and leads to weakened social controls and provides conditions where crime flourishes;
  • It is difficult to establish this in social science “studies;”
  • It is crime statistics, above all, that show broken windows works;
  • Increased enforcement against petty crime increases officer contact with more serious offenders;
  • Harcourt dismisses the effectiveness of broken windows because he views strict enforcement against petty crimes as police harassment;
  • Harcourt dismisses the “real world” data and aggrandizes social science “studies” that do not support broken windows. He also re-analyzes studies in ways that ensure particular findings [that support his bias];
  • Harcourt observes that criminally active youths who move out of public housing into more orderly neighborhoods often continue their criminal behavior despite their new surroundings. From this Harcourt concludes that broken windows is disproved. This is silly because no one seriously believes that repeat offenders will change their behavior simply because they move to better surroundings. Broken windows does not predict that they will;
  • Harcourt is an Ivory-Tower Academic who dismisses the real-world experience of police officers and those condemned to live in violent neighborhoods. These Ivory-Tower Academics should regularly visit these neighborhoods instead of cloaking themselves in the mantle of an empirical “scientist” producing “findings” indicating that broken windows has been disproved;
  • Police don’t have time for Harcourt’s Virtual Reality theories, they do their work in the real world;
  • The best “empirical evidence,” all of it ignored by Harcourt and his colleagues, is that the New York Subway System is now an orderly and relatively crime-free system; MacArthur Park in Los Angeles was once a large open-air drug market but is now a place for families and soccer playing; in Newark and Irvington, New Jersey shootings are down 30% in a targeted area.
  • I particularly like Professor Kelling’s understanding that social science “studies” often reach findings and conclusions that any damned fool with a modicum of real-world experience can see to be utter nonsense. The police chief in the town where my car salesman friend works should take note that one of the ways the Newark, New Jersey police reduced the homicide rate in their city was by instituting an auto-theft strike force that worked exclusively on detecting and quickly apprehending auto thieves. It is not surprising that auto theft is one of the gateway crimes that young criminals pass through on their journey to more major crimes such as armed robbery and car jacking.

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    One Response

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    1. One Hand Clapping said, on Friday, April 16, 2010, 9: 06 AM at 9:06 AM

      Meticulous research into the issue, Ken.
      ~ Jackson, WY police seem to follow broken window policing.
      ~ The idea of attending to misbehavior before it becomes delinquency works for parents too.


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