broken windows thesis

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broken windows thesis A thesis which links disorderly behaviour to fear of crime, the potential for serious crime, and to urban decay in American cities. It is often cited as an example of communitarian ideas informing public policy.

In the March1982 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George Kelling published an article under the title ‘Broken Windows’, in which they argued that policing in neighbourhoods should be based on a clear understanding of the connection between order-maintenance and crime prevention. In their view the best way to fight crime was to fight the disorder that precedes it. They used the image of broken windows to explain how neighbourhoods might decay into disorder and crime if no one attends to their maintenance: a broken factory window suggests to passers-by that no one is in charge or cares; in time a few more windows are broken by rock-throwing youths; passers-by begin to think that no one cares about the whole street; soon, only the young and criminals are prepared to use the street; which then attracts prostitution, drug-dealing, and such like; until, in due course, someone is murdered. In this way, small disorders lead to larger disorders, and eventually to serious crimes.

This analysis implies that if disorderly behaviours in public places (including all forms of petty vandalism, begging, vagrancy, and so forth) are controlled then a significant drop in serious crime will follow. Wilson and Kelling therefore argue in favour of ‘community policing’ in neighbourhoods. This means many more officers involved in foot-patrol (in Britain the philosophy of ‘bobbies on the beat’) and fewer involved in riding around in police cars merely following up 911 (in Britain 999) calls. In this way law enforcement comes to be seen as a technique for crime prevention rather than as a vehicle for reacting to crime.

These ideas on how to tackle the crime problem in urban America have been taken up with some success, notably by the New York Transit Authority (for whom Kelling acted as a consultant), who adopted a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ towards graffiti on trains, urinating in public, intimidation of commuters, and such like, and dramatically reduced the incidence of serious crime in New York City subways. Similar initiatives have also achieved notable successes in reducing crime-rates and urban decay in many other American cities. Typically these involve some mixture of Neighbourhood Watch programmes, zero tolerance of minor public disorders, a shift towards ‘community-oriented’ (preventive) and away from ‘incident-oriented’ (reactive) policing, police involvement in local youth projects, decentralization of authority to individual police officers, and community involvement in setting priorities for and collaborating with prosecutors, police, probation officers, and other criminal justice officials (see George Kelling and and Catherine Coles , Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in our Communities, 1996
).

Supporters of these strategies argue that they offer an imaginative solution to the competing demands of liberty and community in advanced societies; are a necessary corrective to the drift in public policy towards maximizing individual rights and away from enforcing communal obligations; and provide an effective means of reclaiming public spaces without sacrificing essential freedoms. Critics worry about the possible threat they pose to tolerance of cultural pluralism and the legitimacy they may accord to vigilantism among citizens determined (as they see it) to ‘restore order’ in their communities. See also CRIMINOLOGY.