• Recent criticism notwithstanding, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s 1982 article, “Broken Windows,” makes two important points about criminal justice reform that are still relevant today
  • The economic and social costs of the punitive approach to policing that policymakers adopted in response to the late 20th century crime wave were enormous, and the results were disappointing
  • By comparison, the traditional approach to policing, which emphasized order-maintenance instead, was more effective, more efficient, and more humane

A previous installment in this series described the alarming wave of crime that swept the country in the second half of the 20th century and its disastrous impact on Blacks and the poor. In 1982 — just as that crime wave was approaching its crest — George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson published an article in The Atlantic that raised concerns about the way criminologists and police administrators were responding to the crisis: 

From the earliest days of the nation, the police function was seen primarily as that of a night watchman: to maintain order against the chief threats to order—fire, wild animals, and disreputable behavior. … [A]s the crime wave that began in the early 1960s continued without abatement throughout the decade and into the 1970s, attention shifted to the role of the police as crime-fighters. Studies of police behavior ceased, by and large, to be accounts of the order-maintenance function and became, instead, efforts to propose and test ways whereby the police could solve more crimes, make more arrests, and gather better evidence. … [T]he link between order-maintenance and crime-prevention, so obvious to earlier generations, was forgotten.

Kelling and Wilson argued that the shift from order-maintenance to crime-fighting had gone too far, and they advocated a return to policies that put less emphasis on the police’s role in catching and punishing criminals and more emphasis on their role in maintaining order and keeping the peace. 

Unfortunately, the title of the article, “Broken Windows,” and the metaphor upon which it was based had the effect of misleading readers about what Kelling and Wilson were actually proposing. Given that the article included passages such as the following, readers can hardly be blamed: 

[I]f a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. … Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. … We suggest that “untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. … [S]erious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window. Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions.

Following the broken-windows metaphor to its logical conclusion, many readers assumed Kelling and Wilson were advocating a zero-tolerance policy towards minor public order offences such as panhandling. That, however, was an overly literal interpretation. What Kelling and Wilson were actually advocating is what has come to be known as “community policing”; i.e., an approach that emphasizes the police’s role in working with local communities to maintain public order in ways that are both feasible and effective given each community’s specific circumstances. Not only does such an approach not require zero tolerance, the opposite is closer to the truth. As Keller and Wilson said, “The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.” 

The broken-windows metaphor and passages like the one quoted above also had the unfortunate effect of focusing attention on the authors’ unsupported claim that a breakdown in public order can actually cause an uptick in serious crime. A number of scholars pointed out that there was not much empirical support for that claim, and some have even raised doubts about whether the purported causal relationship even exists.

It would be rather surprising if unchecked public disorder did nothing whatsoever to encourage more serious crime, but as far as the article’s central claims are concerned, it hardly matters. Even if it should turn out that Keller and Wilson were completely wrong about the causal relationship between public disorder and crime, they were almost certainly right about several other things that are much more important. 

They were right that neighborhoods that suffer from high levels of public disorder usually suffer from high levels of crime as well, and they were right that, regardless of whether the one causes the other, public disorder and crime harm everyone who lives in those neighborhoods. They were right that there had been a major shift in the focus of public safety from deterrence to punishment, and they were right that that shift had gone too far and was itself causing problems. Finally, they were right that, compared with using the police primarily to catch and punish criminals, using them primarily to maintain order and keep the peace is a more effective, efficient, and humane approach to crime control. 

As future installments in this series will explain, intensive community policing — i.e., the strategic deployment of large numbers of well-trained and well-managed police officers in high-crime, high-disorder neighborhoods — is a proven way to do precisely that. 

For additional information see:

Black Lives Matter – Which Is Why We Need More Police Funding, Not Less

The Late 20th Century Crime Wave Was a Disaster for Blacks and the Poor

How America Ended Up Underpoliced and Overincarcerated

Keeping the Peace: How Intensive Community Policing Can Save Black Lives and Help Break the Cycle of Poverty

Prominent leftist suddenly sees that violence is bad, but for the wrong reason

Why Defunding the Police Is a Terrible Idea