GRAHAM: Broken windows policing failure, adjustments needed


Opinion Column: Considerations of Crime

Arguably a household name, the "broken windows" theory was originally published in The Atlantic by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. In the mid-1970s, New Jersey started an initiative, providing money to departments to remove police officers from their patrol car, instead promoting walking beats. 

This initiative was met with criticism from both police chiefs and police officers. Police chiefs argued that “it reduced the mobility of the police, who thus had difficulty responding to calls for service, and it weakened headquarters control over police officers,” highlighting that car patrols allowed for near-constant monitoring of police actions. 

Headquarters’ ability to monitor its officers was extremely crucial due to the tarnished reputation of police nation-wide. Police officers also responded negatively to the proposition of increased walking beats, as foot patrols had previously been used as punishment due to the work being “harder.”

Foot patrols, though, allowed police officers to communicate better with the public, helping to build a stronger sense of trust between the department and the local community. And that is exactly the intended result of walking beats. In the 1982 article, it was explained that, even without a decrease in crime rates, citizens felt as though their neighborhood was more secure than it had been without foot patrols.

But in a nation filled with increasing media attention surrounding police brutality and abuses of power, is this trust still possible? Is this how the theory should be interpreted?

At the time of the publication, New York City had been ridden with violent crime, prostitution, graffiti and public drug deals. By 1990, after supposedly utilizing broken windows-theory policing, the prostitutes were gone, joints were dealt privately and the buildings were clean of graffiti. 

But was this just due to increased foot patrols? For more liberal activists, broken windows represented the “vision of successful city neighborhoods as fragile ecosystems held together by invisible communal bonds,” as stated in Timothy Noah’s analysis of the change in the theory overtime. But were these communal bonds reinforced by increased patrolling and numerous arrests for seemingly minor violations?

A 2005 paper published by the University of Chicago highlighted that marijuana arrests per year jumped from 10 to 644, with 52% of these being of Black citizens. Those more conservative regarding crime may have viewed this as a positive, as it removed illegal drugs from the streets. But this was merely a redirection of policing, not necessarily a more effective strategy for countering violent crime.

The implementation of effective broken-windows social control calls for requires a revisitation to the initial claims of the theory itself. The theory has garnered support for foot patrols, community policing and “zero-tolerance” laws, supposedly due to the bipartisan support of the theory. 

The issue, though, is that is not what the theory truly encourages. Regardless of how it was advertised back in the 1980s, we live in a different country with different needs. This does not mean that the theory is necessarily false. The application of the research was simply misguided.

The framework for the argument is as follows: “At the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. 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 rundown ones.”

The inference drawn from this evidence, then, is that windows could not be broken. Police patrols were therefore concluded to be a deterring factor, forcing people to leave windows unbroken. But what if the window is already broken? Or what if a window was broken accidentally, but the community was unable to fix it?

Though the original article did specify that this was as true in “nice” neighborhoods as it was in less fortunate areas, the crucial factor that was left unexamined was the social and economic development in an area. That is what will truly encourage the communal sentiment desired. 

A window breaking and being left broken is an issue of control and development, no matter the income level of the neighborhood. If a window is broken in a wealthy neighborhood and left broken, it is likely that a continuance of that pattern will drive out residents with high incomes, as they do not want to live in a neighborhood that appears underdeveloped.

The communal bonds mentioned by advocates of the theory are not maintained by locking up the community. Instead of increasing funding for foot patrols, that funding should be provided to infrastructure development and social programs. Bettering the lives of residents, instead of locking them up, will provide an incentive to maintain the neighborhood, rather than instilling a deterrent to petty crime.

The windows simply need to be repaired.

Jess Graham is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in  political science. Her column, "Considerations of Crime," runs on  alternate Wednesdays. 

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