March 1982 November 2012

Broken Windows

In a piece that had far-reaching effects on law enforcement, Kelling and Wilson took aim at policing techniques that were quietly endangering communities. The changes they called for—putting more officers on the streets, empowering them to combat the conditions that cause lawlessness—were credited with sharp declines in urban crime nationwide.

Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. 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. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones … One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares.

We suggest that “untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls … 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 …

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, as the crime wave that began in the early l960s continued without abatement throughout the decade and into the 1970s, attention shifted to the role of the police as crime-fighters … 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 …

Police are plainly the key to order-maintenance … We may have encouraged them to suppose, however, on the basis of our oft-repeated concerns about serious, violent crime, that they will be judged exclusively on their capacity as crime-fighters … We must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses.

Read the full article in the March 1982 Atlantic.

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