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Punk Writes

40 Years of Broken Windows is Enough


40 years ago, an article was published in The Atlantic espousing a criminological theory that would form the backbone of policing through to today. It would come to be taught to undergraduate students in criminology/criminal justice programs. These students would not read the original article. It would be taught as something with data to back it up. One would assume its founders had a background in criminology. One would assume it had come from an academic journal. None of those things would be true.

A decade ago, I took Crim 205, Theories of Criminology. My professor must've been at least 70; pretty sure he retired the next year. One of the most prominent theories is known as "broken windows", and the entire premise is the slippery slope logical fallacy. The basic idea is that having broken windows in a neighborhood leads to other low-level public disturbances, which leads to burglaries, which leads to violent crimes, until the neighborhood is overrun by the "dangerous classes" ( that a dog whistle I hear?) and the police can do nothing.

The solution? Increase police presence and aggressively target minor offenses. Broken windows is why Eric Garner was put into an illegal chokehold and murdered for selling loose cigarettes. Broken windows is why Times Square went through "Disney-fication" when all the sex workers and porn theaters were closed. Broken windows led to stop and frisk. Broken windows is why George Floyd is dead. It's a blatantly racist theory and I'm sorry it has taken me 10 years and one in-depth podcast miniseries to realise it.

The Author(s)

So, who were the men behind this infamous theory? Although there are two authors of the article, I'm going to focus on James Q. Wilson, and you'll see why in a minute. For starters, the man did not have a background in criminology or even sociology. No, he had a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago. He was also chairman of the Council of Academic Advisors for the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, at some point in his career. Wilson believed that the poor were largely beyond the help of government assistance, due to intrinsic qualities that kept them poor. In so believing, his solution was punitive social control mechanisms from a state authority.

Three years after the broken windows article, he went on publish the book Crime and Human Nature with Richard Herrnstein, which argued that there were biological determinants of criminality. You know, like how the shape of your skull could determine if you would become a criminal. Or the idea that Black people are inherently less intelligent than white people. Of course, Richard Herrnstein would go on to co-author The Bell Curve, an openly racist book on intelligence that reinforced this idea, and was somehow published in my lifetime (1994). Anyway, enough of me telling you it's a racist theory, let's get to the article itself!

Breaking Down Broken Windows

For starters, the entire premise of "broken windows" style policing assumes that people want formal social control mechanism imposed by the state. This is a gargantuan assumption, if you ask me, looking from the perspective of 2022. However, the theory emerged as a reaction to the social unrest and increase in violent crime rates of the '60s and '70s. It's a safe guess that, indeed, many people did want the state to step up their enforcement efforts so they could feel safe in their homes. The article starts with discussing the "Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program," which was devised in the mid-70s in my lovely state of New Jersey to improve quality of life. The program got police officers out on foot patrol instead of sealed off in their vehicles. Did it reduce crime rates? Nope! But it convinced people they were safer and improved community opinion of the police. After all, a pacified populace is the goal of enforcing informal social controls.

Why is it called Broken Windows, you ask? Well, obviously, if there's broken windows in neighborhood, that means people don't care about their neighborhood. And when people don't care, more windows break. Graffiti appears. Teenagers dare to exist in public. People consume alcohol *gasp* outside! The good, respectable citizens don't want to go outside anymore. Now there's multiple groups of teenagers and they're clearly up to no good! Since the neighborhood is already going to hell, criminals move in. Now there's prostitutes and muggings, all because of some broken windows!

But wait, there's more! The only empirical support comes from erroneously interpreting an experiment done by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1969. Gist of the experiment: Two Oldsmobiles were left on a public street, one in the South Bronx and the other in Palo Alto. The purpose was to observe the social causes of vandalism and disprove the conservative argument that it stems from individual or cultural pathology. Now, as Wilson and Kelling tell it, quick work was made of the car in New York. This much is true, and as Zimbardo had hypothesized.

However, they then claim, "the car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passerby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed." Here they leave out the crucial information that, after a week of the car not being touched, Zimbardo drove it to the Stanford campus. Then he and his team of graduate students, with the intent of "priming" the public into vandalism, began smashing up the car. The people who utterly destroyed the car? Zimbardo and his students. The public didn't engage until the car was already destroyed. The correct conclusion here is that anyone can be pulled into vandalism. Without this information, it is easy to draw the conclusion that one broken window leads to thousands.

The roll of police in this time period was just beggining to undergo the shift to the militarised force they are today. They still had a lot of authority in removing "undesirable persons" from neighborhoods through vague crimes such as vagrancy or public drunkenness. The behaviours rarely produce actual harm against other persons, they merely made people uncomfortable and produced a feeling of fear. Wilson did not think it was a good thing to allow so-called "victimless" crimes to go unpunished. To quote directly, "A growing and not-so-comendable utilitarianism leads us to doubt that any behavior that does not "hurt" another person should be made illegal. And thus many of us who watch over the police are reluctant to allow them to perform, in the only way they can, a function that every neighborhood desperately wants them to perform." To put that in 2022 terms, Wilson was upset the bleeding heart liberals didn't want every minor nuissance to be a criminal offence, and how dare they try to limit what the police can do. Remember, if you allow one drunken Baby Boomer or Gen Xer to remain in public view, soon there will be thousands in the streets, just daring to...drink alcohol. That's it. But of course when they drink, then they will be loud and annoy their parents, and they might do some dumb stuff like petty theft from the bodega. Once that happens, it's clearly time to abandon the neighborhood to the inevitable gangbangers and prostitutes, right? Just so we're clear, this is really what they believed.

The Problems of Equity

There is quiet acknowledgement in one sentence that, perhaps, other public agencies could be dispatched to handle problems that are not actually crimes. This theory came about in the decade after mass deinstitutionalisation of the intellectually disabled and mentally ill. The failure of society was in not setting up alternative community-based centers of care. People unable to care for themselves were abandoned to the streets, and governments from local through federal threw their dollars behind policing instead of public health, housing, addiction services, etc--things that actually would've helped thousands and freed up police resources for actual violent crime, of which there was plenty.

Now to the issue of race. It's no secret that the Black community has seen most of the impact from broken-windows style (and every style, let's be real) policing. The authors do give cursory acknowledgement to concerns over equitable treatment. To quote, "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 undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become agents of neighborhood bigotry?"

So, clearly aware of the potential problems in their new theory of policing, how do you think these white male academics attempted to address the issue of racism? Racial sensitivity training (that doesn't work anyway)? Partnering with the communities they're policing? Do you think they offered any ideas? Prayer? It's that last one, essentially. To quote from the paragraph right after their question, "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 supevision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority." Yep, they just shrugged their shoulders and went, "hope these cops don't abuse their broad authority and do racist shit, no idea how to stop it, though."

For policing to "work" (for policing never really "works" the way we think it's supposed to), the communities being policed need to trust the officers and vice versa. Remember, the role of police in broken windows theory is to be state agents reinforcing the informal social contols. But, asks our authors, "how can the police strengthen the informal social-control mechanisms of natural communities in order to minimize fear in public places?" They sure raise a lot of important questions and answer exactly none of them.

Towards the end of the article, in discussing what the most important role of police should be, the authors express their concern that too much emphasis is now on police as crime-fighters, and they need to refocus their efforts on maintaining order. Here's the most ridiculous take of the entire article, in my opinion, you ready? "...and join too quickly in campaigns to decriminalize "harmless" behavior (though public drunkenness, street prostitution, and ponographic displays can destroy a community more quickly than any team of professional burglars)." No, you didn't just have a stroke, they actually believed a TEAM OF PROFESSIONAL BURGLARS was less harmful than people doing things that SHOULDN'T BE ILLEGAL TO BEGIN WITH. So, there you have it folks, that's the infamous Broken Windows theory. The last 40 years of policing have been based upon the thoughts of some scared white people with too much influence (make that the last 400).


Has it worked? I mean, if the goal of policing is to clog courts with low-level nonsense and fine or lock people up for objectively silly offenses, then yes, it has been a resounding success! However, a study actualy found that when NYC police officers took a break from "proactive policing", major crime complaints actually decreased. This "slowdown" in enforcement occured as the result of a failure to indict the officers involved in the fatal chokehold of Eric Garner. It lasted for about seven weeks. By analysing the CompStat reports, researchers determined the number of criminal summonses and SQFs (stop, question, frisk) dropped dramaticlly, along with non-major crime and narcotics arrests. Civillian complaints of major crimes also dropped 3% to 6% in the same period. It's almost like, if you leave communities alone, they actually will police themselves.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

So, I actually started this article back in Februrary, because I knew it would be in-depth and I wanted it out mid-March, to coinicide with the 40 year anniversary of the original article. It's now March 31st, and determined to finish this by midnight, I was working on it at a bowling alley while one of my residents bowled with his mom and friends. Then, wouldn't you know it, I hear a report from the Gothamist on WNYC, and it's straight out of central casting 40 years ago. There is a private conservancy, established in 2013, to oversee Washington Square Park in Manhatten. Allegedly intended to focus on the horticulture, this group that includes a former publisher of the New Republic, Justine Leguizamo (wife of actor John Leguizamo), and jewelry heiress Veronica Bulgari, it quickly began wanting to enforce rules far beyond its purview. In emails between January 2020 and December 2021, they were asking officials to eliminate events, facilitate private programming in public areas, and chase away "hooligans". You see, during the pandemic, when people weren't allowed to do anything inside, parks became the mecca of socialising, and it was wonderful. Rich white people don't want to see teenagers skateboarding or listening to music or *gasp* purchasing from a food cart, though. Oh, and yes, "hooligans" is the word they actually used. Never forget that the police exist to serve the rich and powerful, and have no constitutional duty to actually protect the public.


How a 50-year-old study was misconstrued to create destructive broken-windows policing

In New York, major crime complaints fell when cops took a break from "proactive policing"

The first episode of Behind the Police miniseries from the podcast Behind the Bastards

The End of Policing, book by Alex S. Vitale

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