Fixing "Broken Windows"

Little Things Lead to Big Things

The germ of the idea is simple and compelling. A broken window--or a littered sidewalk, a graffito, or what you like--does no great harm to a neighborhood if promptly addressed. But left untended, it sends a signal: that no one cares about this neighborhood, that it is a safe place to break things, to litter, to vandalize. Those who engage in such behaviors will feel safe here. And once these minor miscreants have become well established, perhaps it will seem a safe enough neighborhood in which to be openly drunk, in which to beg for money, and possibly extort it. In short the smallest symptoms of antisocial behavior will, left to fester, breed greater and greater crimes, all the way down to murder.

This is the theory famously expounded by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in an article entitled Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety, which appeared in Atlantic Monthly in March 1982. They make the consequences of small-scale neglect very clear and very direct:

A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

There is an accessibility, and a sense of reasonability, about all of this. From our personal experience we can find examples--at least, of litter fostering more litter, and suchlike. Whether that extends in an unbroken chain all the way to violent crime is a little more abstract, but it seems plausible enough. It's a compelling idea, and an easy one to grasp, and indeed it took hold quite broadly: "Today," according to the New York Times,1 "'broken windows' policing is endorsed by police chiefs across the country, its proponents sought out for lectures and consulting around the world." The theory was explained to me by an Albany police officer almost as a catechism, a rote recitation of the basic elements: the broken window sends a signal to certain elements that crime is safe because nobody cares, and soon it builds up to all sorts of crime. As simple as that.

A Controversial Prescription

All of this is generally attributed to the Wilson and Kelling article, though the authors themselves make reference to a pre-existing consensus: "Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken."2 Finding any written record of this standing consensus is a little tougher, with one exception--the 1969 experiment of Philip Zimbardo, which Wilson and Kelling immediately go on to retell, wherein he left two identical, vulnerable3 cars in the street in different neighborhoods and waited for them to be vandalized. The car in the Bronx was stripped bare in a day; after the one in Palo Alto sat unmolested for almost a week, Zimbardo himself put a hammer through one of its windows, and as though this act and its impunity were the starting gun they were waiting for, the Californians rallied round to destroy that car just as thoroughly. This experiment is the second most commonly cited origin of the Broken Windows theory--and it does have in its favor that Zimbardo broke a literal window.

Zimbardo, however, was writing much more as a scientific observer, concerned with the psychology of authority and anonymity. Wilson and Kelling write with a presciption in mind: their article is about crime and policing, not psychology.

Loosely speaking, their suggestion wasn't especially new in 1982, either. Edward Banfield, particularly, is cited (by Wilson and Kelling's detractors,4 at least) as a precursor to their doctrine of public order as crime prevention. But it was Wilson and Kelling who fastened the doctrine to the explanatory myth of the windows, and it is that combination that has been the focus of attention for so many policymakers in the twenty years since its writing. To drive the point home, Kelling went on to write Fixing Broken Windows with his wife, Catherine Coles, in 1996--a full book expounding the policing strategies advocated in 1982.

The traditional mode of policing, in the history Wilson and Kelling sketch, was public-order maintenance:

From the earliest days of the nation, the police function was seen primarily as that of a night watchman: to maintain order against the chief threats to order--fire, wild animals, and disreputable behavior. Solving crimes was viewed not as a police responsibility but as a private one.
But this slowly gave way to detective work, a shift they would like to see rolled back.
A great deal was accomplished during this transition, as both police chiefs and outside experts emphasized the crime-fighting function in their plans, in the allocation of resources, and in deployment of personnel. The police may well have become better crime-fighters as a result. And doubtless they remained aware of their responsibility for order. But the link between order-maintenance and crime-prevention, so obvious to earlier generations, was forgotten.
One important piece of the authors' program is the further spread of "community policing," which was already gaining popularity before their article appeared. An officer in a squad car is too safely sealed away from the people to be part of the neighborhood, they say, too far removed to know who's who on the street and to function as a dampening influence on would-be small-time miscreants in the neighborhood. Officers on foot, on regular beats, become fixtures of the community, and as such have stabilizing influence: "What foot-patrol officers did was to elevate, to the extent that they could, the level of public order in these neighborhoods."

The greater part of the Broken Windows prescription, though, is the shift in police focus from major crimes themselves to what might once have been called nuisances--litter, public drunkenness, panhandling, teenagers. In these small beginnings, we are told, real crime takes root. In quelling the small disruptions of street life, we snuff crime before it begins.

The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager, or the importuning beggar is no merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization--namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.
So, does it work? That of course has always been the question at the heart of the furor over the theory: do the broken windows, the small instances of street disorder, really represent a slippery slope that can draw a neighborhood into worse problems with violent crime? And on either side, few have actually produced figures with which to settle it. "I still to this day do not know if improving order will or will not reduce crime," Wilson said, in 2004. "People have not understood that this was a speculation."

A powerful doubt is built into the Broken Windows theory right from the beginning, in fact, and the authors seem curiously at peace with that. On the first page of the 1982 article, in giving a quick history of a community-policing initiative in Newark, Wilson and Kelling tell us about a study by the Police Foundation--of which Kelling himself was one author--that "foot patrol had not reduced crime rates" in the areas studied, prominently including Newark. "But residents of the foot patrolled neighborhoods seemed to feel more secure than persons in other areas." They go on, strikingly, to argue that the residents were correct, that the neighborhoods were truly safer despite having seen no reduction in crime. How, they ask rhetorically, can this seeming contradiction be?

Finding the answer requires first that we understand what most often frightens people in public places. Many citizens, of course, are primarily frightened by crime, especially crime involving a sudden, violent attack by a stranger. This risk is very real, in Newark as in many large cities. But we tend to overlook another source of fear--the fear of being bothered by disorderly people.
It's worth examining that chain of reasoning closely. How can a neighborhood be called "safer" without a drop in crime? Well, they say, we must understand that some people are scared of crime, while others are scared of disorder. Well, that's fine--but it would seem to lead right back to the suggestion that people's feeling of safety may not correspond to the reality of safety, an objection that Wilson and Kelling have just now dismissed.

This would have been an appropriate time to clarify what measure of safety they had in mind, if we are not to measure it by crime rates. But none is offered, unless it is in fact the residents' feeling of safety. For the rest of their lengthy article, the authors will never return to the question; instead they plunge into a discourse on how to allay "the fear of being bothered by disorderly people" without a backward glance. The "many citizens" who are chiefly afraid of crime are left with the fervent assurance that rooting out disorder will automatically prevent crime somewhere along the line--but this seems belied by the authors' satisfied assessment of Newark as safer than before, despite its unaltered crime rates.

The question of what exactly they mean by safety becomes awfully important. Whether because they are more worried about perceived danger than actual danger (apparently they are) or because they're more worried about disorder than danger (also seemingly the case), directly addressing immediate dangers is no part of their aim.

A Theory on the Big Stage

A decade after the Atlantic Monthly article, the theory got its most celebrated trial run. Rudy Giuliani implemented his own vision of Broken Windows policing across New York City. Two much-repeated slogans were added to the discussion by the mayor's initiative: "zero tolerance," referring to the aggressive zeal with which the police were mandated to stamp out minor public disorder, and "quality of life," that elusive societal value against which disorderly behaviors were held to trangress. Among the "quality of life" offenders targeted were jaywalkers and the notorious "squeegee men," in addition to the usual litany of panhandlers, drunks, and noisy teens. The police were given a great deal of latitude, and went to their work with a will. And it worked. Crime in New York dropped like a stone in the 90s; it is still falling now.

Whether this steep decline owes to a Broken Windows philosophy is endlessly debated. The market for crack cocaine slacked, and began generating far less violence, some point out. Improved medical and emergency-response capabilities may be blunting murder rates by saving victims who would once have died, others suggest.5 The 90s were boom times, many argue, and high crime rates are associated with economic hardship. Boston is often emphasized as a counter-example, a city whose own precipitous decline in crime followed a very different approach by the authorities, marked less by vigorous arrests and stiff sentences and more by police-community cooperation. Indeed crime fell in many other cities during the same time--in some cases more markedly so, notes Bernard Harcourt in the Boston Review, in April 2002:

One recent study found that New York City's drop in homicides, though impressive, is neither unparalleled nor unprecedented. ... Another study looked at the rates of decline in homicides in the seventeen largest U.S. Cities from 1976 to 1998 and found that New York City's recent decline, though above average, was fifth largest.
But even if the crime decline in New York doesn't vindicate the Broken Windows theory, none of these arguments can quite discredit it--not in the face of that undeniable decline, at any rate. Something has gone right, and much of the country has been more than ready to embrace Giuliani's message.6 Cities across the country clamored to adopt zero tolerance policies.

It needs to be noted that George Kelling, as a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, associated closely with mayor Giuliani from the beginning of his term.7 The motto of the Manhattan Institute is "Turning Intellect into Influence;" and Wesley Skogan describes Kelling--approvingly enough--as an "academic policy entrepreneur."8 The Broken Windows school of thought didn't find its way to Giuliani's ear by chance.

If Broken Windows is working, nobody's strictly certain why or how. The Albany officer who explained the theory to me leaned heavily on the notion of a certain "element" who would, denied the reassuring signal sent to them by small-scale disorder, "move on" and do their dirty business elsewhere. (Exactly where, he didn't specify.) Malcolm Gladwell, more subtly, suggests that crime really does spread (and retreat) as an epidemic does, turning suddenly at a certain threshold rather than increasing and decreasing in a simple, linear way.9 Wilson and Kelling themselves take little time to examine the precise mechanics by which public disorder progresses and ferments into crime; essentially, they posit that it does. And thus do most of the idea's adherents--though there is a range of directness or indirectness with which people suppose the effect acts. "If you put a couch out in a backyard, somebody could get raped on that couch," explains Hong Van Nguyan Tran, urging the adoption of Broken Windows policies in Lancaster, PA.10 Of course this is a strikingly facile compression of the theory expounded by Wilson and Kelling, but perhaps it is only a difference of degree.

Harcourt argues that the crackdown on disorderly behavior per se has had little to do with the decline in crime; rather, the increased number of arrests and friskings, the increased suveillance, and a surge in police recruitment had the fairly predictable effect of bringing more small offenses to light. Meanwhile, he says, no one has ever actually shown the connection between disorder and crime, and without that proof we are getting far ahead of ourselves in handing the police a mandate to take more drastic action against less drastic offenders.

New York cops have indeed begun to use that mandate to stop minorities disproportionately, Harcourt tells us.

[New York State Attorney General] Spitzer concluded from the data that "even when crime data are taken into account, minorities are still 'stopped' at a higher rate than would be predicted by both demographics and crime rates."
The increased aggression of the force can also lead to an alarming increase in police violence, as former San José police chief Joseph McNamara writes in the Record11 of Bergen Country, NJ:
Incidents like the NYPD's alleged torture of a Haitian naturally reinforces minority citizens distrust of the police. This mistrust has been boosted of late by numerous television videotapes showing police officers beating up unresisting citizens. In most cases, the cops were white and those on the receiving end of their clubs were black or Latino.
This has always been a danger, of course, of giving the police the trust that we must by nature give them. We make the police, to some extent, judges.

Life, through a Certain Window

This is precisely Wilson and Kelling's desire, though, importantly. Remember their longing for their bygone era of policing:

Second, the police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested "on suspicion" or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. "Rights" were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer.
Kelling's own experiences accompanying a policeman (awkwardly dubbed "Kelly") on his beat show that the spirit of that earlier period is still alive:
Sometimes what Kelly did could be described as "enforcing the law," but just as often it involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order. Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge.
"Extralegal," please, means illegal. This is the society our authors fancy; they would like to see officers of the law empowered to contravene the law in the name of an informal, and very personal, notion of community order. And it seems we are all meant to trust the police with these powers because Wilson and Kelling, personally, trust them.

One of the inevitable critiques, maybe a fundamental critique, of Broken Windows is that the types of "disorderly conduct" it targets are notably offenses typical of the poor. Crimes typical of the rich, or even the reasonably affluent, are never mentioned; there is to be no crackdown on predatory lenders, on embezzlers, on slumlords, on crooked accountants, on redlining banks. Is this because these practices are held to have no adverse effect on a neighborhood that might foster crime later on? Or because they are considered major crimes, which will surely wither at the root anyway if not emboldened by the reassuring signal of unseemly behavior on the streets? More likely these crimes are simply not glaring, daily irritants to the likes of Wilson and Kelling in the same way the unsightly behaviors of poor people are. Loan-sharking does not immediately disturb the quality of a well-to-do politico's life.

Just as landlords, not poor tenants, burn ghettoes, so landlords neglect broken windows. And yet the windows themselves have become a metaphor for problems actually blamed on people who are generally not in a position to fix windows. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window. It's not about the breaking of a window; it's allowing it to stay broken. Likewise it's not about somebody being poor; it's about the failure of some responsible authority to stop people from being poor in plain sight. As Wilson and Kelling explain, you can't make an omelette without fixing a few windows:

Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.
The good of the many outweighs the good of the poor. But the poor are suspect, after all. "Kelling and Coles take a tough-minded view of who the street denizens we frequently label 'the homeless' really are and what they are doing," says Wesley Skogan in an enthusiastic review12 of Fixing Broken Windows. Soon after he complains about the influence of "politically constructed images of claimants like 'the homeless' that little resemble the aggressive, conniving, often drug-crazed schemers that Kelling and Coles see populating the streets." So skeptical is Skogan of the motives of the destitute that he cannot even bring himself to use the word "homeless" without quotation marks; he knows they must all have houses somewhere.

This direct and oddly angry subtext, the finger pointed by implication, leads the reader to the most disturbing, and genuinely dangerous, set of ideas in the Broken Windows philosophy. The Wilson and Kelling model of policing is founded on a "two kinds of people" worldview. There are upstanding, "decent" citizens and there are "disreputable" troublemakers. And most or all of the problems with city life arise from the actions, however minor, of the troublemakers.

This, I realize, is not a charge to be leveled lightly, but the authors have spent much of their careers mapping just such a pattern of thought in exhaustive detail. "Wicked people exist," wrote Wilson in 1975.13 "Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people." Earlier yet14 he set down a list that tells, us, perhaps, a little more about the people he sees on the other side of this divide:

...[the] teenager hanging out on a street corner late at night, especially one dressed in an eccentric manner, a Negro wearing a "conk rag" (a piece of cloth tied around the head to hold flat hair being "processed"--that is, straightened), girls in short skirts and boys in long hair parked in a flashy car talking loudly to friends on the curb, or interracial couples--all of these are seen by many police officers as persons displaying unconventional and improper behavior.
As lightly as that, "unconventional" becomes "improper," and it no longer seems quite safe not to ask who gets to decide what "orderly" means when disorderly behavior is to be targeted by the police. If officer Kelly were to take some "extralegal steps" to reorganize the disorderly fact of an interracial couple, would Wilson and Kelling still approve? They would never plainly suggest such a thing, of course. But combining disparate remarks from their writings continually creates such alarming juxtapositions, and rarely do they make any specific statements that would contradict the apparent implication. If we give the police a mandate to restore public order according to their own judgement, what is to prevent prescriptive notions of propriety and other such cultural biases from filling the void of definition where the codified law has hitherto stood?

There will be no shortage of agitators in favor of a cultural hegemony, surely. It is an old saw, though difficult to verify, that an anonymous pedestrian walking along on a public sidewalk in Beverly Hills is likely to be stopped by the police and told to leave. Many more neighborhoods have powerful internal rules about the upkeep of residences, sometimes as much concerned with good taste as with sound condition. And already some have seen Broken Windows policies as a vehicle to press such matters, unrelated to crime as they may be. The town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania has been trumpeting its adoption of Broken Windows policing for several years, inspired by the example of New York. In April of 2002, the Lancaster New Era received the following letter to the editor from resident Doris Kelly:

This being almost mid-April, shouldn't homeowners have had sufficient time to remove their December holiday decorations? Icicle lights hung year round give the impression of a homeowner with an aversion to work and negatively impacts on neighboods.

In keeping with Lancaster City's broken windows philosophy, let's take down the plastic icicles.

At some point, these inevitably subjective judgements of the orderly too easily become cliquish, or essentially tribalist. It may not be inevitable; one could fairly object that cracking down on public intoxication and littering is as unbiased as any ordinance that bars some specific behavior, and that societies are obliged to make such judgements. But the potential for abuse is plain.

Wilson and Kelling see the problem, particularly with respect to race, and laudably deplore it:

The concern about equity is more serious. We might agree that certain behavior makes one person more undesirable than another but how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undersirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?

We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question. We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority. That limit, roughly, is this--the police exist to help regulate behavior, not to maintain the racial or ethnic purity of a neighborhood.

They see the problem, but their only offered cure for it is a heartfelt reiteration of the superior integrity of the police officer.

Perhaps this is not compelling to all readers, but it holds a great deal of weight with the authors themselves. Broken Windows is full of descriptions of policemen that approach hero-worship. A security guard, they write, may prevent crime or be of assistance in the event of crime, but against "someone challenging community standards" he is generally helpless. "Being a sworn officer--a 'real cop'-- seems to give one the confidence, the sense of duty, and the aura of authority necessary to perform this difficult task." Now, it might be supposed that what a security guard lacks is not so much the personality as the very real legal impunity with which police officers are empowered to impose their will arbitrarily. But Wilson and Kelling read the difference as a question of character--and circular though it may be, this willingness to uphold social norms is precisely what makes the police worthy, in the authors' eyes, to be entrusted with even greater discretionary powers.

Meanwhile, though the authors warn against using the wrong "basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable," there was never a time when they did not believe that such a taxonomy was more or less valid. As we have already heard from Wesley Skogan, Kelling is highly mistrustful of the motives of the very poor. Notable among the problems named in Wilson and Kelling's frequent litanies of street disorder is that of teenagers; noisy teenagers, teenagers in groups, teenagers at night, teenagers standing on the corner. And the older quote from Wilson, of course, shows that people can become problematic not only by virtue of their age but their race, their clothes, the length of their hair.

One more look into Wilson's career greatly amplifies this concern: three years after Broken Windows, he wrote with co-author Richard Herrnstein a book called Crime and Human Nature, which was devoted entirely to the exercise of divining the traits by which we can classify and identify criminals--based on an unshakable faith that there is such a line to be drawn in reality, between intrinsic law-abiders and intrinsic "calculators." An entire book of their findings on the ages, social classes, races, and even body types of those they believe to be criminals by nature is grim indeed when juxtaposed with Wilson's earlier remarks about certain wicked people who must be set apart from the innocent. And as if to underscore the point, Herrnstein went on to co-author with Charles Murray, in 1996, a notorious volume called The Bell Curve--the latest in an ignoble tradition stretching back to Samuel Morton of scientific "proofs" that intelligence is real, that it can be and has been accurately and fully measured, and that to no one's surprise, the most cherished stereotypes held by the powerful against the less powerful are all demonstrably true.

The Broken Windows theory cannot be judged on its provenance alone, of course. But it does have its ideological underpinnings, and some of them are unsavory.

How Much Do the Authors' Notions Matter?

"For all their effectiveness in cracking down on a wide range of antisocial behaviors," write Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio in Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, "the New York City police never repaired a single broken window, fixed up a single house, or cleaned one vacant lot." (p164) Why, then, are police the means indicated for arresting social disorder, if they are powerless against its archetypical manifestations? Responding to a report by the Manhattan Institute on the successes of the NYPD and their meanings, Bernard Harcourt suggests that the purpose of Broken Windows policing has been misunderstood, or perhaps misstated.

But the Manhattan Institute report does, perhaps unwittingly, reveal the true face of broken windows policing. Since the publication of Wilson and Kelling's Atlantic Monthly article, there has always been a lingering question concerning the implementation of a broken windows approach. After all, if the aim is improved public order, couldn't that be achieved with urban renewal projects, homeless shelters, and social workers, as well as or instead of more police arrests? Now we know, from a reliable source. The only number used in the Manhattan Institute report to measure the extent of broken windows policing is the number of precinct-level misdemeanor arrests. The authors made a "decision to use arrests for misdemeanors as our measure of 'broken windows' enforcement." The broken windows theory, it turns out, is not so much about public order, as it is about arresting people for misdemeanor and public disorder offenses.
If Broken Windows, the article, is freighted with a hidebound sort of authoritarianism, does that mean that Broken Windows, the theory, must be? If Broken Windows offered a methodology better suited to arresting people than to spreading order through society, then it must be asked how it comes about that crime has fallen since Giuliani's zero-tolerance initiative began. Some, though, say that the festival of police activity has only been part of what brings this about, and maybe not the greatest part. Grogan and Proscio go on to point out that the refurbishment of housing had been set in motion long before, under Ed Koch, in an epic five-billion-dollar program that continued through the mayoralties of David Dinkins and Giuliani. Meanwhile, heroic efforts by CDCs were being made in the Bronx, across the city and in other major cities. Their analysis is something of a relief from the more common contrast made between New York and Boston; to hear Grogan and Proscio tell it, the approach wasn't as different as all that in these cities: they show vital links being forged in both cities between CDCs and the police, and it is this cooperation, they say, that heals neighborhoods. Some very dedicated promoters of Broken Windows have been calling for that grassroots effort all along: "Without the full cooperation of the community," writes officer Daniel Jenkins of Lancaster, PA, "local government and the courts community policing will not work."15

Finally, Someone Actually Does a Study

For over ten years, a mammoth study has been underway in Chicago, directed by Felton Earls, which with the benefit of a large staff and many millions of dollars' funding set out to learn the causes of street crime, and its working preventions. Though the bulk of the findings are just now being assembled for public release, various publications have come out of the study while the work has progressed. In Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy, Earls and his co-authors Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush put forth the concept of collective efficacy, "defined as social cohesion among neighbors and their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good." This collective efficacy, the study has shown, is the greatest predictor of neighborhood crime--not, it turns out, the windows, or any other symptom of "disorder." As the New York Times16 says:

Testing "broken windows" was not the point of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, the study planned and conducted by Dr. Earls and colleagues to unravel the social, familial, educational and personal threads that weave together into lives of crime and violence.

Nonetheless the data gathered for it, with a precision rarely seen in social science, directly contradicted Dr. Wilson's notions.

The connection between disorder and crime, long the subject of furious debate with little real evidence on either side, appears to have been invalidated. Community presence, rather, is what deters crime. "It's not so much that broken glass or disarray in neighborhoods is the source or root of crime," Earls told National Public Radio;
it's really in the social relationships that exist among neighbors, among people who work in neighborhoods, among services and so forth, that the social conditions are there to engage or not to engage citizens, neighbors in watching out for crime or crime-related activity in the neighborhoods.17
So there is, definitely, a set of clear and powerful ideas at the heart of Broken Windows. But the central mythology of it is mistaken--not only the underlying, poisonous notion of a criminal class with an inborn inclination to wrongdoing, but the very centerpiece of its discussion, the doctrine of the slippery slope from the first traces of disorder to a nadir of rampant crime, is falsified by a sweeping and painstaking study, the only comparable study of real data about neighborhoods and crime.

Instead, what holds its value is Wilson's and Kelling's conviction that a safe neighborhood is one in which the residents feel safe enough to take a hand in defending it. They are right to urge communities to work with the police, and the police to become part of the community. What they missed is only that the specific focus of this cooperative attention--street crime, neighborhood disorder--matters less than the palpable presence of the community.

Letting the Myth Go

There is power in this dogma, certainly; it has changed policy in so many real cities that it must be weighed well and in the public discourse. New cities are still flocking to Wilson's and Kellings' banner. New York's new mayor is less cosy with the Manhattan Institute, though he has carried on with his own flavor of Broken Windows policing, adding his own twist: a special, streamlined court process for quality-of-life cases.18 Meanwhile the Institute, together with newly formed Giuliani Group, is shopping their famous policing philosophy all over Latin America,19 from Mexico City to Santiago, despite the warnings of some that what worked in an economic boom in New York might not fly in a dirt-poor metropolis where violent crime is rampant and the police are notoriously corrupt.20

And to some extent there is power because there really is a good idea here. There is also a lot of baggage attached that is not proven effective, and even the central dogma may be part of the chaff; and after all every advocate of Broken Windows has a slightly different set of associations with the idea. But with the central fable of the philosophy in question, it is time to set the disreputable ideas apart from the decent ones.



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