Broken Windows Thesis

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Broken Windows

Is the Broken Windows Theory Broken?

In their article Broken Windows, Wilson and Kelling give an in-depth explanation of how whether a community is orderly or disorderly can impact the perception of a community's crime rate. They explain how lawmakers in New Jersey decided to enforce this policy by putting policemen back on the street, walking beats, rather than patrolling in police cars. Although Wilson and Kelling both acknowledge that placing officers on foot patrol did little to change actual crime rates, they noted that those foot patrols resulted in a change in neighborhood attitude and demeanor. While crime rates may not have changed, people in those neighborhoods perceived a difference in the rates of crime, especially violent crime.

The theory posited by Wilson and Kelling was that active policing brought down the level of disorderliness in a neighborhood, which, in turn, made people more likely to remain involved in their neighborhoods, rather than making fortresses of their homes. Furthermore, the theoretical suggestion was that this change in community attitude was what would eventually impact crime rates. It is believed that almost all urban neighborhoods go through cycles of decline. Whether or not a cycle of decline is followed by a cycle of rejuvenation is believed to be a function of how heavily invested community members are in that community. Since the level of neighborhood commitment is linked to the likelihood that the neighborhood will be able to defeat an influx of crime, it seems clear that the level of non-criminal, disorderly conduct should have a long-term impact on a neighborhood's crime rates. However, no sufficient long-term studies have been able to conclusively determine whether reducing a neighborhood's rate of disorderly conduct does have a long-term impact on the crime rate in that area. For short-term studies, foot patrols have not had an appreciable impact on crime rates, and some crime rates in foot patrol areas have actually risen. Of course, it is impossible to know if the rise in crime is greater than, less than, or equal to the rise that would have been experienced if no foot patrols had been put in place. While studies have compared hot spots of crime in the same neighborhoods, the reality is that no two areas share the same social conditions, so that it will continue to be impossible to truly understand the impact community policing on future crime rates.

This ambiguity has led many to question whether focusing on community disorder is an appropriate use of limited police resources. According to David Harcourt, police efforts need to move from policing disorderly conduct. (Harcourt and Thacher, 2005).

He does not think that there is sufficient empirical support to suggest that foot patrols can actually reduce real crime rates, especially violent crime rates. In fact, he challenges the one empirical study supporting the idea that foot patrols can help reduce violent crime by stating that the reduction of crime in those areas was inevitable. That study showed a reduction in crime in the areas that had been hardest hit by the crack-cocaine driven crime influx. Harcourt believes that since these areas had seen the greatest increase in crime, they were likely to see the greatest reduction in crime after the crack cocaine crises ended.

Furthermore, Harcourt referred to a study that he helped conduct, which showed that people who used vouchers to move from low-income neighbors did not have a lower crime rate than people who chose to stay in high-crime areas. (Harcourt and Thacher, 2005). Therefore, his conclusion was that neighborhood order or disorder did not impact crime rates. However, one thing that Wilson and Kelling made clear in their original article is that they felt that neighborhood commitment levels helped determine criminality. The sheer fact that people chose to use their vouchers to move away from high-crime areas show that they did not have neighborhood commitment in that area. Therefore, one might actually expect people who had failed to establish roots in their previous neighborhood to engage in constructively social behavior in their next neighborhood. Harcourt does not address this incongruity in his study, but instead simply compares overall crime rates of the people who remained in the area and the people who moved out of the area. That is a fundamentally different study than looking at whether foot patrols can have a long-term impact on crime rates and neighborhood disorderliness, including the reversal of the traditional signs of urban decay.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that not everyone agrees with Harcourt's negative view of the broken windows theory. For example, Thacher disagrees with Harcourt's view of the Broken Windows theory, even though Thacher believes that the broken windows theory has not been supported by social science studies. Thacher points out that Harcourt's position reveals the central weakness to the social science approach to the broken windows theory. Thacher points out:

Somehow the question of whether police should take order maintenance more seriously got equated with the question of whether doing that would reduce crime. I think that's an interesting and a little dispiriting comment on our culture. it's consequentialism gone awry: nothing is worthwhile in itself; you have to show that it has some other good consequence before doing it. As if there were no reason for a cop walking by to do something about a guy urinating in the middle of the street in a commercial district; or to tell a man who propositions and harasses every woman who walks past him to cut it out; or to lay down some rules with a panhandler who gets in people's faces and won't take no for an answer; or to tell a guy lying down on the subway steps, blocking people who are trying to get to work, that he's got to get up -- unless by doing all these things the cop would prevent a statistically-significant number of burglaries next month. (Harcourt & Thacher, 2005).

In short, Thacher's point is that police should stop disorderly conduct because that conduct has a negative impact on quality of life in a neighborhood, even if that conduct does not actually increase the risk of violent crime.

Kelling and Coles would tend to agree with Thacher's point-of-view. They believe that the level of fear in a neighborhood has a direct impact on crime rates in that neighborhood. Moreover, fear of crime is linked to the disorderliness of the neighborhood. Local officials and citizens have always been focused on disorder in the neighborhood, even though it is an area that has traditionally been ignored by law enforcement officials. In San Francisco, people reported avoiding certain areas because of disorderly conduct in the area. In addition, people were arming themselves, with either weapons or dogs, against people they found disorderly. Many of these people were homeless, and actions against them faced legal challenges. (Kelling and Coles, 1998). While those first efforts may not have passed constitutional muster, many local governments have managed to pass effective laws aimed at reducing disorderly behavior, which has resulted in people reporting less fear and feeling more comfortable. Community perception of crime rates is more important to community satisfaction than actual crime rates, because people respond to their perceptions about crime. Therefore, even if the broken windows theory is incorrect and social disorder does not create a breeding crime for more serious offenses, including violent crime, it would appear that community policing can only have a positive impact on a neighborhood.

Moreover, Thacher reiterates the idea that existing social science research is unable to say whether or not the Broken Windows theory is valid. According to Thacher, "both the critics and the proponents of Broken Windows underestimate how hard it is to study an issue like this in a convincing way. (Harcourt & Thacher, 2005). The simple fact is that it is almost impossible to create a control situation for a broken-windows type study; in fact, if a police department decides to engage in broken windows type foot patrols and community policing, ignoring one crime hot spot could leave the local government very vulnerable to lawsuits. However, studies that attempt to compare areas in two cities or neighborhoods really do not present a valid experimental situation. In fact, Thacher believes that the one study that truly investigates the impact of police presence in high-crime areas and does so in a scientifically valid manner tends to support the broken window theory of crime control.

Braga, et. al. studied the impact of problem-oriented policing interventions in Jersey City, New Jersey. They did this by targeting twenty-four high-activity violent crime areas. These twenty-four areas were paired off together, and one member of each pair was randomly allocated to treatment options. Many of these treatment options were the same type of things that would be encouraged under a broken windows theory, such as maintaining order, enforcing codes, keeping the area clean, and helping move homeless from the streets. This experiment demonstrated that aggressive policing in violent hot spots does have… [END OF PREVIEW]

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