Broken Windows policing is the theory that you can maintain order by cracking down on low level crime and you can also prevent more serious crime.
The term came from George Kelling and James Wilson, who used the example that a broken window left how it is would signal indifference and more crime would escalate from that. The conceptual idea makes some sense. It follows that high level criminals would start with more minor crimes before they feel comfortable moving on to more serious ones. I think that if you try to be tougher on lower level crimes, you start to be inequitable in the punishment of those crimes and instead of preventing serious crime, you’ll instead foster serious crime because people will feel they’ve been wronged by an injustice.
The idea can be tied in with the concept of Community Policing. As I discussed in one of my previous blogs, community policing is a concept and movement for police to be more active within their communities and build relationships with their citizens in order to prevent crime. The concepts relate because ideally, if officers were more involved in their communities, there would be less minor crimes and therefore less “broken windows” leading to more serious offenses.
The thing is, there isn’t much empirical data for the merit of broken windows policing. In all honesty, I think that if people want to commit a particular crime, minor or serious, they will do it. Regardless if police are cracking down or not. It’s essentially a cost/benefit analysis. If they perceive the benefits to outweigh the costs, then we’ll have a new criminal. Plain and simple.
Back to empirical data: A study published in 2006 by Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig on the subject found that there is no support for the theories of Kelling and Wilson. They conducted a study called Moving to Opportunity in which they randomly assigned housing vouchers to about 4, 600 low income families in five cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Boston) living in public, high crime areas to move to less disadvantaged and disorderly communities. They said in their study:
“Taken together, the evidence from New York City and from the five-city social experiment provides no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship as hypothesized by Wilson and Kelling, nor for the proposition that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources.”
Another aspect of broken windows is who is going be targeted if this method of policing is implemented into a community. Police will not ordinarily go into a wealthy neighborhood looking for people committing these low level crimes. They will go, not surprisingly, into low income communities and target minorities. Whether they are conscious of this or not, that’s what will happen. Here is an excellent video by Elite Daily this and other aspects of Broken Windows policing:
I believe the most important part of the video is from 0:50-4:00 but you can watch more if you’d like. However, A quote from the video that struck me is at 6:43 a man says this:
“You can’t help but feel cynical about all this (expletive), because why should I respect this law, why should I respect any of these laws? They’re not even enforced fairly.”
Broken Windows is depicted in that video to be very racially biased. Part of the reason it is racially biased is because of the aspects I earlier mentioned about the demographics that it targets. The concept itself can’t help that, it’s just how it is designed. That’s why it needs to be done away with everywhere. Broken Windows is not something that is going to reduce serious crime, it is not something that is going to help anyone, it is not something that is going to help our society.
I believe that, ultimately, Broken Windows is something that can hurt our police force. This is just another way that our people become more wary and more distrustful of the police. My peer, Austin DeTray posted a blog about the declining law enforcement population. That could be because of the negative stigma that our society has grown to have regarding our law enforcement officers: the people who are supposed to protect and serve the community. Our community.
What do you think of Broken Windows policing? Is there any real merit to it?
- Jair Oglivie