One of the most successful ideological movements waged by government agencies in recent decades has been the so-called Broken Windows theory of policing.

Popularized in the 1980s by George Kelling, the theory states that if minor violations are ignored — such as the breaking of a window on private property — then those small infractions will act as a signal to others in the community that more serious crimes can be committed with impunity.

In political and policing circles, this theory became immensely popular during the 1990s and persists today, although repeated demonstrations of the forceful and deadly methods used by police to address small-time infractions has prompted many to ask if coming down hard on every little thing is really the best way to police a neighborhood.

While Kelling successfully reinvigorated the idea, the Broken Windows theory in the 1980s, was not new or novel. It was simply the latest manifestation of what has also been termed “community policing” and “order maintenance” policing.

At their core, these ideas taken together depend on the idea that police interactions with community members should be expanded well beyond criminal activities while giving police officers more discretion over what laws to enforce, and when.

Two Views: Community Policing vs. Limited Policing 

Community policing and order maintenance policing have long been in tension with competing views of policing in which the police should be more limited in their role and focused more on serious and violent crime.

Not surprisingly, as police agencies took shape for the first time in the United States in the nineteenth century, many Americans took the view that policing should be limited in scope.

In his essay “Community Policing in the United States,” Jack Greene notes that “the American police service was originally cast as a reactive force, not as a preventive of interdicting force … America’s police were to provide assistance on request, not to proactively intervene in the lives of the community.” (See more from Greene on four different policing models.)

It was recognized that more police power and more police discretion to initiate interactions with the public would lead to corruption. The coercive and monopolistic power that comes with government policing brings the ability to demand compliance and resources from the public for personal advantage, and the advantage of state institutions. The best safeguard, early skeptics of policing concluded, was to carefully limit police power.

It did not take long for the skeptics to be proven right.

Greene continues:

The police of the late 19th and early 20th century were unlikely to be seen as extension of “the community.” More often, they were viewed by citizens as extension fo corrupt politicians or as criminal enterprises. While charged with enforcing the laws, the early American police were not often lawful — the law was neither a means not and ends for the police. Rather, the law was often selectively invoked for political, administrative or corrupt purposes.

Not surprisingly, many reformers attempted to reduce police corruption then by seeking “to control in detailed ways the actions of the police.” Reformers suspected that police who were given discretion to enforce a wide variety of laws according to their own judgment were more prone to use the law enforcement system for personal purposes, whether for outright extortion, or to improve one’s own career prospects.

The reformers were successful, to a certain extent, at pushing through a more “professional” model of policing in the twentieth century. The new model of professionalism put distance between police officers and the community. The community was engaged for purposes of crime fighting, and police focused on emphasizing their role in combating dangerous criminals. It’s not a coincidence that this new model of professionalism manifests itself by the middle of the twentieth century in popular culture through fictional characters like Joe Friday of the long-running Dragnet franchise about the Los Angeles police department. Friday is distant from the community, professional, straitlaced, efficient, and interested only in facts.

Reformers sought to professionalize the police as part of an effort to distance the police from the political machinery of the time, thinking this would reduce police corruption. This may have been helpful, although the corrupting nature of law enforcement monopolies continued, as one might expect.

The problem of police corruption was hardly solved in the decades following these initial reforms. Greene continues:

Early studies of the American police in the 1950s and 1960s did not necessarily support a benign biew of the public law enforcement or of its agents. More often, the police were found: to use excessive violence toward personal ends; to punish non-respect with arrest; to be socially and politically cynical; and to be rooted in local customs and traditions, despite years of reform efforts. Later studies in the 1970s suggested that the preventive capacity of the police was largely mythical, that rapid response was largely ineffective, and that detective work was largely overrated, generally by detectives themselves.”

Calls for a more explicit return to “community policing” came in the 1960s and 1970s with significant increases in street crime and social unrest in the United States. It was thought that if the police would engage the community in a variety of ways beyond mere crime fighting, then this would defuse racial tensions and other socio-economic conflicts apparent within urban communities.

Thus, by the early 1980s, when Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote this influential essay in The Atlantic explaining the basics of the Broken Windows theory, they were able to portray community policing as something new that might address the failures of older models of policing.

Broken Windows Theory Has Often Been Abused and Misapplied 

It’s important to note, though, that the vision of Kelling and Wilson was not the crude model of policing that is used today under the label or the Broken Windows theory. (What is used today is often a hybrid of the Broken Windows model and the “zero-tolerance” model.)

Kelling had always advocated a soft approach to policing in which arrests and summonses were only one tool of many employed by the police. In Kelling’s vision, effective community policing had to be done on foot, and the police officer relied largely on his personality and his relationships with the community to maintain order. The officer was in no position to use overwhelming force against community members or retreat into an armored vehicle. Kelling writes:

An officer on foot cannot separate himself from the street people; if he is approached, only his uniform and his personality can help him manage whatever is about to happen. And he can never be certain what that will be — a request for directions, a plea for help, an angry denunciation, a teasing remark, a confused babble, a threatening gesture.

The philosophy of order maintenance employed by Kelling rested on the idea that frequent use of violence on the part of the officer (i.e., tasing and arresting members of the community) would be counter to the entire point of community policing and order maintenance.

Modern policing done in the name of the Broken Windows theory, however, relies largely on summonses, citations, arrests, and physical violence to enforce laws against any number of minor infractions including carrying knives, selling loose cigarettes, smoking a joint, jaywalking, and other “offenses” that should be regarded as completely non-criminal.

In spite of Kelling’s original intentions, Broken-Windows-style policing has come to mean rigid and aggressive enforcement of small-time violations.

What Kelling might consider “abuse” is now often the norm, when it comes to the practical application of the theory. In fact, the Broken Windows theory in many communities has been used to justify legal regimes built largely on extracting large amounts of resources from working class and lower class neighborhoods in the form of fines, court fees, and other legal costs.

In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, where a jaywalking intervention led to the shooting death of Michael Brown, it was revealed that the city of Ferguson was in the habit of issuing unusually large numbers of citations and fines for non-violent violations. The city then arrested citizens who did not pay the fines, putting them in what are effectively debtors prisons.

This tactic has been used elsewhere as well. In a recent Frontline analysis, the author noted similar practices have been employed in Newark, New Jersey where so-called “blue summonses” have been liberally issued throughout the community.

Broken-Windows Theory As an Excuse for More Heavy-Handed Policing 

This, however, is what we would expect from a police force that enjoys immunity, monopoly powers, and is far more heavily armed than the general population. Why engage in the Kelling model of community policing when it is far more lucrative — and requires far less patience and risk — to simply arrest or open fire upon anyone who shows “disrespect”?

In both the Ferguson and Newark cases, the Broken Windows model was been used to justify more citations and arrests, but, as the Frontline report notes: “the frequent stops and citations made people mistrust the police, and much less likely to cooperate when officers were investigating serious crimes.”

Enforcement of small-times crimes thus may harm police efforts to catch serious criminals. Nor does enforcement of low-level offenses mean that people likely to commit serious crime are even being targeted. In the case of Newark, for example, large percentages of summonses were going to people who were “in their 50s or 60s or maybe even older.”

People over fifty are not the people committing serious crimes. But, older residents have been easy targets for police, so it is they who receive the citations.

This disconnect between real crime and petty offenses is not sufficient to dissuade police officers and police departments from continuing to crack down on small-time offenders. After all, there are career incentives for making large numbers of arrests and issuing large numbers of citations. In the case of Newark, “officers who racked up summonses were chosen for plum assignments” while officers also targeted the easier-to-victimize populations such as the elderly, disabled, and mentally ill.

Trends like these have long been shaped by police department policy which rewards police officers who take a harsh stance against minor offenses, while police to focus on more serious crime are less often rewarded. Police Historian David Simon writes:

How do you reward cops? Two ways: promotion and cash. That’s what rewards a cop. If you want to pay overtime pay for having police fill the jails with loitering arrests or simple drug possession or failure to yield, if you want to spend your municipal treasure rewarding that, well the cop who’s going to court 7 or 8 days a month — and court is always overtime pay — you’re going to damn near double your salary every month. On the other hand, the guy who actually goes to his post and investigates who’s burglarizing the homes, at the end of the month maybe he’s made one arrest. It may be the right arrest and one that makes his post safer, but he’s going to court one day and he’s out in two hours. So you fail to reward the cop who actually does police work.

Naturally, local governments also have a lot to gain from demanding fines and payments for court costs from defendants.

Does It Reduce Serious Crime? 

Politicians have long embraced the Broken Windows theory and assumed that order-maintenance policing reduces all types of crime. The evidence does not warrant such an assumption.

In Policing in America, Larry Gaines and Victor Kappeler conclude flatly “there is little proof that order maintenance policing impacts serious violent crime,” although there is evidence that it reduces the incidence of lesser offenses.

The theory nevertheless remains popular. The poster child for the Broken Windows theory is usually presented as New York City where many have noted a significant improvement in crime during the 1990s. This is then credited to the aggressive enforcement of laws against a variety of minor offenses. Ignored, of course, is the fact that New York experienced historic levels of economic growth during this period and that crime nationwide declined significantly over the same period. Numerous large cities throughout the United States during this period experienced similar trends in the absence of similar police policies.

In an article in the American Journal of Sociology, Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush deny there is a proven link between “public disorder” and crime. (“Public disorder” includes activities such as vagrancy, prostitution, drinking in public, and drug selling.) The authors conclude socio-demographic issues and physical neighborhood characteristics are far more important to the equation: “Attacking public disorder through tough police tactics may thus be a politically popular but perhaps analytically weak strategy to reduce crime.”

Some of the confusion over the effectiveness of community policing stems from inexact use of definitions of crime. If one defines drug selling and prostitution as “crimes” then harsh penalties against those “crimes” will tend to lessen them. On the other hand, if one limits the definition of “crime” to violence, theft, destruction of property and other acts with a specific identifiable victim — as one should — then we find it much more difficult to connect public disorder to real crime.

In evaluating the success of community policing, one must also evaluate the side effects of more aggressive enforcement. Police shootings, violent confrontations and civil unrest must all also be factored into claims that community policing has improved conditions within a community. There is also evidence that incarcerating people for small infractions makes them more likely to commit crimes later. Because incarceration can have long term affects on one’s ability to earn a living through legal means, researcher Michael Mueller-Smith concluded “incarceration led to increased criminality for inmates after re-entry.”

Community Policing Is More About Politics than Crime Reduction 

By mentioning politics in their conclusions, Sampson and Raudenbush may have hit on the true reason for the popularity of the Broken Windows theory. Although it has not been shown to reduce serious crime, the theory remains politically popular and allows politicians to claim they are being active in punishing and preventing crime.

Even Kelling admitted that order maintenance policing often cannot be shown to reduce crime, but it remains valuable, in Kelling’s view, for other reasons. The key, Kelling notes, lies in the fact that a neighborhood can be “‘safer’ when the crime rate has not gone down.” This is because when the Broken Windows theory is employed, people will often feel safer in spite of the reality. Now, feeling safer is not the same thing as being safer, but the claim is that order maintenance policing is important because it improves “quality of life” and perceptions of the community.

At this point then, Kelling — and backers of the Broken Windows theory in general — have been reduced to admitting that when used for order maintenance, police are really quality-of-life agents and not crime fighters at all.

Faced with this, then, we must ask ourselves if the same people who are trained to capture rapists and murders with deadly weapons need to be the same people who shoo away aging drunks who engage in public drinking.

There is good reason to suspect the private sector could easily provide these services. As Murray Rothbard has noted, order maintenance at the street level is low-hanging fruit as far as private-sector security goes, with merchants and other community members highly motivated to pool private resources to keep the streets clear of people who impede commerce and restrict use of public spaces. Indeed, this sort of order maintenance can be — and has been — accomplished quite easily in privately-owned public spaces such as common areas of housing developments and multifamily housing complexes, shopping malls, parking lots, amusement parks, downtown plazas, outdoor food courts, and similar areas. This sort of security is carried out daily by private security worldwide. (See Tate Fegley on this topic, as well.) Moreover, these neighborhood-controlled agents would be answerable to the local owners and residents, and not to centralized political machines, police chiefs, or other government agents who stand to benefit personally from aggressive enforcement.

The reason we see so little of this in practice, though, is the fact that the public sector has already crowded out the private sector in matters of order maintenance. Since one can easily access (at least in theory) taxpayer-subsidized police services via 911, there is an enormous incentive to rely on “free” police services, even if those services are more likely to bring the possibility of violence, abuse, or unreliable service. Why employ private agents to tell drug dealers to find some other street corner when the police will show up (eventually) and do it for free?

Community Policing Expands State Power and Discretion

Early critics of police agencies were right when they immediately identified the downside of active community policing: It gives police agents wide discretion to take action against the general population, while increasing opportunities for coercive intervention in the lives of private citizens. A police force that is encouraged and empowered to intervene in any number of non-violent activities by citizens is also a police force that has wide leeway to extort, threaten, arrest, and assault private citizens over any number of small-time “transgressions” that don’t rise to the level of crime.

Many “fixes” have been offered for the problem of police corruption and abuse. As early reformers knew, though, the only truly reliable way to reduce corruption and needlessly violent police interactions is to reduce police discretion and to reduce the number and scope of laws that police are called upon to enforce. “Community policing” or “order maintenance” are really just another way of describing a large expansion of police power.

So long as police forces enjoy monopoly powers, and are subject to political, rather than market control, the only way to minimize the potential for police abuse is to minimize their legal reach. If Americans as a society want government police who will be tasked with finding murderers and rapists, they also need to understand that these tasks do not necessitate a police force that spends its days citing local residents for broken tail lights and drinking a beer in public. Giving police wide latitude to be aggressive against the population in the name of order maintenance, on the other hand, is likely to breed resentment, suspicion, and obstacles to enforcing laws against more serious crimes. It’s time to admit that the Broken Windows theory is failed and the answer lies in limiting police powers, not in expanding them.


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