by Ryan McMaken
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.
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 Atlanticexplaining 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.