?In recent months, protests around the country have called attention to policing practices, particularly to the "broken windows" theory, which has shaped policing tactics nationwide.
Coined in 1982 by two college professors, the "broken windows" theory held that a police force can make communities safer by cracking down on minor crimes—things like broken windows. By pursuing low-level offenses, many argue that police departments can play a powerful role in deterring more serious crimes.
George Kelling was one of the professors behind the theory, which was first published as a 1982 article in "The Atlantic" he co-wrote with James Wilson.
"Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken," Wilson and Kelling wrote. "One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."
They concluded: "Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows."
Kelling, now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, discusses his theory and reflects on the current state of police-community relations in America.
A Magic Bullet to Fight Crime?
“Our belief from the beginning was that order was an important part of any civilized society,” says Kelling. “If you’re going to have a strong education [system], strong faith institutions, and strong commerce, you have to have minimal levels of order. And we believed order was an end in itself.”
When developing the “broken windows” theory, Kelling says that he and Wilson examined research that shows that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked.” In that initial article, Kelling and Wilson speculated that community disorder might also be linked to serious crimes—an argument that has become one of the most controversial subjects in the “broken windows” debate.
“It started with this idea that any civilized society has to have minimal levels of order,” he says. “Strangers have to feel comfortable for a city to really thrive.”
Kelling says that one of the first incarnations of “broken windows” as an actual police practice was within the New York City subway system. He says there was a broad warning that police would be cracking down on fare evasion.
“The whole idea was to persuade people to behave in appropriate ways,” he says. “Those that persisted might ultimately wind up being arrested. But even then, we sent out booking busses so we would interfere with peoples’ lives for as short a period of time as we possibly could. The idea that ‘broken windows’ is, at least as I perceived it and have worked to implement it, that it’s focused on getting arrests is really a serious misconception.”
Though some related research was examined, the “broken windows” theory was not actually based on data. Rather, it was developed out of impressions raised by social scientists.
“We were clear at the beginning that it was speculation,” says Kelling. “I don’t think it’s speculation anymore. Right now, my own feeling is that the burden of proof is no longer on those who advocate ‘broken windows.’ The burden of proof is on those who suggest that it doesn’t have any impact on crime.”
Since the 1980s, crime in the United States has dropped significantly—in 2013, the number of violent crimes dropped to their lowest levels since the 1970s. However, Kelling says that “broken windows” shouldn’t be viewed as a sort of magic bullet for combatting crime.
“It’s easy to oversell the impact that ‘broken windows’ has had on serious crime,” he says. “New York City is the classic example. There were all kinds of targeted anti-crime efforts that had nothing to do with ‘broken windows.’ ‘Broken windows’ was a base—there was a perception that fear had to be reduced, order had to be maintained, and it could also contribute to a reduction in crime. But there were all kinds of other tactics.”
Abuse & Misuse
Yet, more than 30 years ago, both Kelling and Wilson knew that the “broken windows” theory presented risks, and they feared that the theory would be abused.
“We fearful of [negative consequences] from the very beginning,” he says. “The history of the use of loitering laws and vagrancy laws is a very sad history. It was used during the post-Civil War period and into the 20th century to keep many African-Americans in virtual slavery. We understood that it had enormous potential for abuse.”
Back in the ‘80s, Kelling says the original article that laid out the “broken windows” theory raised issues that many would now refer to as racial profiling. When grappling with questions of justice and equity, the authors wrote, “How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?”
“We were raising these issues out of concern that, as ‘broken windows’ ideas worked their way into policy, that it had to be done with considerable concern for how discretion was used and that it was used appropriately,” says Kelling. “We expected even then that it was a powerful tool, and like many other powerful tools, that it had capacity for abuse and misuse.”
Nowadays, many of the communities at the center of “broken windows” policing models, often communities of color, feel unfairly targeted by the practice.
“It’s a sad commentary that it’s come to this because we’ve made so much progress,” says Kelling. “When I first start to consider how neighborhoods ought to be policed, the first thing I account is victimization—who’s suffering the most? Almost regardless of where you go in the United States, whether you’re talking about New York or Seattle, one finds that it’s the poor and minorities that are suffering from crime and disorder.”
Kelling believes that the “demand for order in minority communities is strong.” He adds, however, that police should be using the “broken windows” model to operate on behalf of citizens.
“For me, ‘broken windows’ has always been a subsumed or is a tactic under community policing,” he says. “Police operate on behalf of citizens. They have to work with citizens.”
Kelling says that the consequences will be great if police departments solely work in the name of getting more arrests or driving crime down.
“Minority communities have a history of two problems with the police, and one is police brutality—that is a serious problem that has to be dealt with,” he says. “But the second is under policing...My fear is that because of the questions that are being raised now about the overuse of authority, we’re going to under police minority communities again. And that comes at a great, great cost.”