The Flaws and Criticisms of the Broken Windows Policing Theory

In 1982, a consequential theory was developed by Social Scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. This theory, known as the “Broken Windows” theory, sought to define why certain areas and groups were more prone to criminal and anti-social behavior. Wilson and Kelling claimed that improperly maintained and disorderly’ environments themselves influenced the criminal behavior of their residents. According to the theory, maintaining an orderly environment was essential in influencing its residents not to commit crimes.

Criminologists quickly moved upon the conclusions of Wilson and Kelling to create a new type of policing, called Broken Windows policing. Broken windows policing aimed to create an environment of order in troubled communities by aggressively policing against petty crimes like vandalism and littering, with the expectation of reducing more violent and serious ones.

Most famously, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton implemented use of Broken Windows policing in New York City in the late 1980’s, as the city struggled with a difficult wave of violent crime accompanying the Crack Epidemic. As the strategy played its course in the 1990’s, violent crime declined, corresponding with the decrease of crack cocaine use and availability as well as usage of broken windows policing. Many criminologists credit the use of Broken Windows as being key to reducing violent crime rates, and studies of crime data have been made suggesting that it was a relevant factor. A study in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency indicated that broken windows policing, as practiced not only in New York but cities across the country, was a factor in reducing violent crime. “It is noteworthy that the results of this systematic review and meta-analysis lend some credibility to the NYPD’s claim that disorder policing was influential in reducing crime in New York City over the Course of the 1990s.”

However, broken windows policing and its effectiveness are not without critics. Some criminologists maintain that the effectiveness of broken windows-a strategy still being used- has reduced with the changing times and changing urban environments. Some point to what they see as abuses of civil liberties-criticizing the infamous NYPD practice of ‘stop-and-frisk’ for violations of civil liberties and being prone to racial profiling. Criminologist Ann Joanes described attention given to the Broken Windows strategy as “[not all being] positive, as many NYC residents and observers have blamed this policy for the rise in police brutality and racial tensions and the lost and respect for the police. New York has not achieved a greater crime reduction than that of all other US cities”.

This line of criticism against Broken Windows has intensified in recent yearsparticularly with regards to stop-and-frisk (also known as “Stop, Question and Frisk) and claims of its racially biased application. In response to a class action lawsuit, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the contemporary practice of stop and frisk was discriminatory and unconstitutional in August 2013. This forced the NYPD- also under pressure from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio-to change its application of stop and frisk, particularly how it was used in minority neighborhoods. After the restriction, NYPD Officers reported using stop and frisk with 99% less frequency in two of the most crime ridden neighborhoods- the 73rd and 75th precincts, based in Brownsville and East New York respectively. However, the neutering of this tactic coincided-not only in these neighborhoods but in New York City as a whole- with a relatively notable rise in violent crime rates. Shootings increased in these precincts by rates of 27% and 47%, respectively. This has led proponents of Broken Windows policing to claim that the disruption of conventional broken windows tactics such as stop-and-frisk has had a directly negative impact on the rate of violent crime in New York City.

Another issue frequently raised in regards to the acceptability of broken windows policing is its relevance to the current state of American cities, as opposed to the environment it was introduced in during the 1980’s. Drug use and violent crimes have decreased in frequency since then, and law enforcement faces new challenges, such as maintaining a healthy relationship with minority communities- a problem visible within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.

While questions toward the proper application of Broken Windows remain, it seems the removal of a time-tested and valuable crime fighting strategy would leave police departments across the country less prepared to prevent violent crimes and to make neighborhoods safer. Broken windows can and should be used in a way that enables law enforcement to work with minority communities, without stripping their abilities to keep Americans safe.

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