Home / Policing Urban Crimes: The Broken Windows Theory

Policing Urban Crimes: The Broken Windows Theory

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He who steals an egg steals an ox.  – A French saying quoted from The Scholarly Myths of the New Law and Order by Doxa

Just two days before the French riots of Oct 27,2005, sparked by the deaths of two African teenagers in the underprivileged northeastern suburbs of Paris, the French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy famously remarked, "Vous en avez assez de cette bande de racaille? Eh bien, on va vous en débarrasser." ("You've had enough of the dregs of society? Well, we're going to get rid of them for you.”) The Interior Minister took a tough stand on fighting crime on the streets by saying that certain cities in France needed ‘nettoyer au Kärcher’ (power washing).

These comments proved inflammatory among the poor African youth, already facing racism, and the riots soon spread to nearly 300 cities of France leading to widespread torching of cars and destruction of public property.

From the perspective of criminology, Mr. Sarkozy’s semantics about fighting crime and enforcing order is certainly colourful and controversial but conceptually not a novel idea. His police strategy towards urban crime is borrowed from the key concepts of broken windows and zero tolerance enunciated in American criminology. In fact, "over the past several years French politicians (as well as their English, Italian, Spanish, and German colleagues) of the Left as well as the Right," writes Loic Wacquant, "have travelled as one on a pilgrimage, to signify their newfound resolve to crush the scourge of street crime and, for this purpose, to initiate themselves into the concepts and measures adopted by the US authorities."[1] This new security doxa found favour with liberals as it was perceived as a rational policy resting on effectiveness and seemingly devoid of any ideological bias.

The concept of broken windows was developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling who published their article titled Broken Windows: The police and Neighbour Safety in the March, 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. The authors posited their theory in the following words: "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. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing (it has always been fun)."[2] "The essence of Broken Windows," explains Charles Pollard, "is that minor incivilities (such as drunkenness, begging, vandalism, disorderly behaviour, graffiti, litter etc.), if unchecked and uncontrolled, produce an atmosphere in a community or on a street in which more serious crime will flourish."[3] In other words, crimes flourish because of lax enforcement.

The prescription for broken windows is to shift policing from major crimes to traditional public order maintenance. As Wilson and Kelling note, ‘A great deal was accomplished during this transition, as both police chiefs and outside experts emphasized the crime-fighting function in their plans, in the allocation of resources, and in deployment of personnel. The police may well have become better crime-fighters as a result. And doubtless they remained aware of their responsibility for order. But the link between order-maintenance and crime-prevention, so obvious to earlier generations, was forgotten.[4]

Nearly after a decade of the publication of the article the theory of broken windows was put to practice by the Republican Mayor Rudy Guiliani across New York City. He appointed William Bratton as the Commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1994. The Guiliani-Bratton team honed to perfection a police strategy called Zero Tolerance, which some scholars point out was derived from the Broken Windows theory to tackle the high incidence of crimes in New York City. Bratton explains the theory in his paper Crime is Down in New York City: Blame the Police.[5]

The paper lucidly expounds the specific strategy used in fighting street disorder and crimes, which plagued the streets of New York. A close reading of the paper gives one the impression that there was heavy emphasis on concentrated aggression and ruthless prosecution of petty crimes. Bratton chose to focus police action on subway fare evaders and homeless people who lived in the subways of New York. Soon the subways were declared crime free and reclaimed for the benefit of the citizens. Other offenders targeted were jaywalkers, the squeegee men (individuals who cleaned the windshields of cars trapped in traffic snarls and coercing the motorists to pay for their services), panhandlers, drunks, noisy teenagers and streetwalkers.

The aggressive policing included searches, sweeps and arrests of individuals found loitering in streets even though they had not committed any crime under law. There was reorganization of the police force by flattening hierarchies and empowering the captains of precincts. Police officers were judged by statistical figures of arrests they made and promotions given. The police forces were expanded significantly from 27000 (1993) to 41000 (2001). Information technology was deployed and officers had greater access to computers. There was compilation of crime statistics, sharing of data, which made police deployments to crime-affected areas more effective.[6] Under Bratton, the NYPD became a formidable machine with an offensive outlook on crime and disorder.

There is general agreement among academicians of criminal jurisprudence that crime in New York did drop. Murder decreased by 72% and total violent crimes by 51%.

The remarkable turnaround in crime rates were largely seen as attributable to broken windows or its semantic variant, quality-of-life policing adopted by NYPD. Conservative policy makers lauded the efforts of Giuliani and Bratton in cleaning the streets of New York and assertively claimed that other states would do well to follow the Bratton Miracle. The influential Manhattan Institute together with the Giuliani Group has been propagating the policing philosophy to Latin America for curbing urban crimes. In the year 1998 alone nearly police officials from 150 countries visited NYPD to learn about the innovative techniques of crime control.

In recent years the broken windows theory and the order maintenance strategy has been in the eye of a perfect storm. A note of dissent was struck by Bernard E. Harcourt, a Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard University, who said, "the difficulty is that there is no good evidence for the theory that disorder causes crime. To the contrary, the most reliable social scientific evidence suggests that the theory is wrong. The popularity of the broken windows theory, it turns out, is inversely related to the quality of the supporting evidence."[7]

Harcourt backs his conclusion by relying on a comprehensive study conducted by Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush on disorder in urban neighbourhoods. This study was based on careful data collection using trained observers. On a random basis, 15,141 streets of Chicago were selected for analysis. Sampson and Raudenbush found that disorder and predatory crime are moderately correlated, but that, when antecedent neighborhood characteristics (such as neighborhood trust and poverty) are taken into account, the connection between disorder and crime "vanished in 4 out of 5 tests—including homicide, arguably our best measure of violence." Sampson and Raudenbush conclude that attacking public order through tough police tactics may thus be a politically popular but perhaps analytically weak strategy to reduce crime.[8]

Similar doubts were voiced by other research scholars who expressed grave reservation about adopting the New York style of policing. On the basis of a cross-city comparison of policing strategies and homicide rates, Anna Joanes observed that all of this attention has not been positive, as many NYC residents and observers have blamed this policy for the rise in police brutality and racial tensions and the loss of trust and respect for the police. New York has not achieved a greater crime reduction than that of all other U.S. cities. In fact, the three cyclical measures reveal that New York City’s decline was either equal to or below that of several other large cities, including San Francisco, San Jose, Cleveland, San Diego, Washington, St. Louis, and Houston. These other cities employ a variety of policing strategies. The fact that cities like San Diego and San Francisco employed different policing strategies but have experienced similar declines in their crime rates calls into question the claim that the NYPD’s tactics have produced an unrivaled decrease in crime.[9]

According to Wacquant it is not the police who make crime go away. A trenchant critic of Giuliani-Bratton police work, Waquant puts forth the view that six factors independent of police work have significantly reduced crime rates in America. First, the boom in economy provided jobs for youth and diverted them from street crimes. Even though the official poverty rate of New York City remained unchanged at 20% during the entire decade of the 1990s, Latinos benefited by the deskilled labour market. The blacks, buoyed by the hope of the flourishing economy, went back to school and avoided illegal trade. Thus even though under-employment and low paid work persisted there was decline of aggregate unemployment rates which explains 30% decrease in national crime rates.

Second, there was twofold transformation in drug trade. The retail trade in crack in poor neighbourhoods attained stability. The turf wars subsided and violent competition among rival gangs decreased. The narcotic sector had become oligopolised. This resulted in a sharp drop in drug related street murders. In 1998 it dropped below the one hundred mark from 670 murders in 1991. The change in consumption of drugs went from crack to other drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines, a trade which is less violent as it is based on networks of mutual acquaintances rather than anonymous exchange places.

Third, the number of young people (age group between 18-24) declined. It must be noted that the young people in this age group are found most responsible for crimes. The AIDS epidemic among drug users, drug overdose deaths, gang related homicides and young criminals imprisoned eliminated this group by 43,000. This decline of young people resulted in the drop of street crimes by 1/10th.

Fourth, the impact of learning effect that the deaths of earlier generations of young people had on the later generation, especially those born after 1975-1980, avoided drugs and stayed away from risky life styles.

Fifth, the role played by churches, schools, clubs and other organizations in awareness and prevention campaigns exercised informal social control and helped to control crimes.

Sixth, the statistical law of regression states that when there is abnormally high incidence of crime it is likely to decline and settle towards the mean.[10] Wacquant concludes that the dynamic interplay of the six factors was largely responsible for the drop in crime rates in America and the claim that policing alone was responsible for the drop in crimes at best rests on shaky empirical data.

The concept of broken windows rests on a slippery theoretical slope. More problematic is the underlying notion that focusing "police activity on those social categories presumed to be crime vectors" could prevent crimes. The danger inherent in such a notion is that the police functionaries would be in a position to extra-legally harass the homeless, the destitute and the minorities. This has been well documented by law enforcement officials, academics and human rights groups. In a study conducted in 1999 by the New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer with the help of Columbia University’s Centre for Violence Research and Prevention, Spitzer concluded "in aggregate across all crime categories and precincts citywide, blacks were 'stopped' 23% more often (in comparison to the crime rate) than whites. Hispanics were 'stopped' 39% more often than whites." The racially discriminatory pattern is evident from the statistics available for the U.S.A. as a whole and for New York City, which shows that adults arrested for misdemeanors are disproportionately African –American in relation to their representation in the community.[11]

The experience in other parts of the world has not been an encouraging one. For instance, The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties has recorded that the zero tolerance policing has been racially discriminatory to the Arabic-speaking people.[12] Similarly, in South Africa there have been doubts whether zero tolerance would be acceptable to the public, as the memories of the repressive apartheid regime remains fresh in the minds of the people.[13]

In the final analysis, the implementation of order maintenance policing may destroy the diversity and vitality of democratic society. As Bernard Harcourt eloquently sums up:

"It is, in effect, a type of 'aesthetic policing' that fosters a sterile, Disneyland, consumerist, commercial aesthetic. It reflects a desire to transform New York City into Singapore, or worse, a shopping mall. The truth is, however, that when we lose the dirt, grit, and street life of major American cities, we may also threaten their vitality, creativity, and character." [14]

[1] The 'Scholarly Myths' of the New Law and Order Doxa. Loic Wacquant, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley.

[2] Wilson, James Q, and Kelling, George. Broken Windows: The Police and Neighbourhood Safety. Atlantic Monthly, March 1982.

[3] Charles Pollard. Zero Tolerance: Short-term fix, long-term liability?

[4] Wilson, James Q., and Kelling, George. Broken Windows: The Police and Neighbourhood Safety. Atlantic Monthly, March 1982.

[5] William Bratton. Crime is Down in New York City: Blame the Police. IEA Welfare Unit, Revised Second Edition, January 1998.

[6] Randall G. Shelden. Assessing “Broken Windows’: A Brief Critique. Center On Juvenile And Criminal Justice.

[7] Bernard E Harcourt. Policing Disorder. Boston Review.

[8] Robert J. Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush. Systematic Social Observation of Public Places: A New look at Disorder in Urban Neighbourhoods. American Journal of Sociology, 105 (2000): 637,638.

[9] Ann Joanes. Does New York City Police Department deserve credit for the decline in New York City’s homicide rates? Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, 33 (3):  Spring 2000.

[10] The’ Scholarly Myths’ of the New Law and Order Doxa. Loic Wacquant, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley.

[11] Spitzer, ‘Stop and frisk’ practices. 89,123.

[12] Zero Policing and Arabic-speaking young people. Micheal Hartley Kennedy, New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, 2001.

[13] Zero Tolerance: The hard edge of community Policing. Bill Dixon. African Security Review, Volume 9, No. 3, 2000.

[14] Policing Disorder. Bernard E. Harcourt. Boston Review

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About Socrates

  • Dan

    James Q. Wilson and George Kelling defended Broken Windows theory against its critics in the September/October issue of The American Interest.

  • doubting thomas

    There is evidence that the crime rates were declining before Giuliani and Bratton took over. Hence it is a hyperbole to conclude that Giuliani and Bratton were responsible for the drop in crime in New York.Refer Freakonomics- page129- Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

  • Dear Socrates

    1. I seek your permission to use your article for my magazine/souvenier program which I will share with security managers in a forum being organised by my company

    2. The forum is called the WORLD SECURITY CONGRESS. Please see http://www.bsecure.com.my

    3. I will post all articles that would be in the magazine. I expect that to take place sometime towards the end of this month

    Kind regards
    Anand Pon

  • socrates

    Dear Anand,
    ‘I seek your permission to use your article for my magazine/souvenier program which I will share with security managers in a forum being organised by my company.’

    Please do. And wishing you the very best in your publishing venture.

  • Max Von Gunther

    Dear Mr.Anand Pon,
    Socrates is a avid writer and has published many articles.It would not be a bad idea to have Socrates in your panel discussion specially when his article is read out.He would perhaps enlighten your session more on Broken Windows.I had the extraorinary privilage of meeting Socrates during my visit to India and i must confess his knowledge is stupendous.You will not regret my suggestion.

  • There is evidence that the crime rates were declining before Giuliani and Bratton took over