No, That’s Not “Broken Windows” Policing

We’re doing it wrong. And by it, I don’t mean “broken windows” policing. I mean talking about “broken windows” policing.

As you probably know “broken windows” is a theory about community law enforcement that’s getting a lot of attention in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, Freddy Gray and Eric Garner. You are likely to hear it described as a theory of law enforcement that cracks down on minor offenses to discourage bigger ones. That’s how NPR summarized it on May 4th. It sounds pretty bad, aggressive, and authoritarian. And this view of the theory is backed up by the televised death of Eric Garner — a man who, as all the world knows, died while being roughly taken down over cigarettes.

On the face of it, this sounds like a pretty horrible idea — calling out the SWAT team to go after litterbugs and jaywalkers. It sounds like the kind of police state we keep hearing we’re living in.

But NPR got it wrong.

Writing for the Atlantic in 1982, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson coined the term “Broken Windows” and the phrase and the theory have grown into commonplaces this year in the wake of highly publicized controversies over the use of police force, and the relationship between law enforcement and community.

Officers on foot in a community made people feel safer — even when crime rates didn’t budge.

At its heart, broken windows theory is about the power of face to face policing, achieved through police foot patrols. Officers on foot in a community made people feel safer — even when crime rates didn’t budge. The difference had to do with the perception of order, and the personal stake evident in a neighborhood. But the central question about broken windows policing — and the one that dominates our re-thinking of it today, is how police officers maintain the perception of orderliness. As Kelling and Wilson put it in 1982:

“What foot-patrol officers did was to elevate, to the extent they could, the level of public order in these neighborhoods”.

The concept doesn’t rest on aggressively cracking down on minor offenses, but on establishing a general sense of orderliness. As Kelling and Wilson describe it, in some places this meant letting drunks and addicts sit on front steps, but not lie down.

Central to the theory is the concept of strangers versus regulars. Officers on foot — rather than in cars — knew the difference because they knew the community. The animating principle of broken windows was one of personal intimacy, human interaction, and staking a claim in a neighborhood. A question of knowledge, not power.

And the arrangements of our neighborhoods may make it harder for residents to know their communities, and for police to police them. Architect and urban planner Oscar Newman wrote Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design in 1973, and updated the idea with Creating Defensible Space in 1996, examining the way that modernist fantasies of high density high rise housing and shared community space gave way to high density slums, where common areas that were rivers of green on the design drawings turned into abandoned rivers of trash in reality. The problem, says Newman, had to do with a sense of ownership.

Like “broken windows”, this required an arrangement where communities (and policemen) knew who was a Regular and who was a Stranger.

Check out Oscar Newman’s Creating Defensible Space

Newman’s work in urban planning for St. Louis and Detroit sought to transform long, gridlike suburban blocks into communities — cul-de-sac neighborhoods, places with single points of entry where you knew the difference between stranger and regular. People didn’t simply drift through. He called the concept “defensible space”, resting on the idea that the physical arrangement of a community could influence how easy it was for residents to live in and defend it from disorder. It’s the same kind of principle as broken windows. We might call this “broken avenues” theory.

If Newman is right (and he is not without his critics) then fixing “broken windows” means both building communities that are conducive to community policing, and making sure the application of community policing is not, as NPR summarized, about aggressiveness or cracking down, but about maintaining a community to the standards that the community expects — and is in a position to defend.

Broken windows and Defensible Space are both structural, not cultural, a political theories. They are designed as means for residents to feel safer. And they are not without their critics or their problems.

Broken windows looks a bit totalitarian on the face of it — permitting a high level of law enforcement discretion in which offenses to focus on in order to maintain a sense of order. And what does it tell us about the labyrinth of our laws that make up the rule of law, that law enforcement can apply orderliness so broadly? Furthermore, we might well ask whether the pure theory of broken windows — a model of community engagement and face to face accessibility for enforcement — has gotten distorted into a concept of sheep versus guard dog in the eyes of communities or officers themselves. Finally, how much does a broken windows approach rely on community infrastructure, from the shape of the buildings and blocks, to the arrangement of personal relationships and family structures? Is it a theory that works in suburban and urban communities alike?

We need to ask questions about the theory because it is a dominant way of thinking about law enforcement. We especially need to interrogate the way it’s being applied by police departments across the country. We may even need to abandon it. But let’s make sure we understand it first.

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