Fixing Broken Windows:
Foreword by James Q. Wilson
The Importance of Connecting
Atlantic articles by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson:
Broken Windows (March,1982)
Making Neighborhoods Safe (February,1989)
Kelling and his wife, Catherine Coles -- a lawyer and anthropologist
specializing in urban issues and criminal prosecution -- have now published
Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing
Crime in Our Communities (Free Press, 1996), a book that expands
significantly on the Atlantic cover story. They examine the competing claims of individual
liberty and community in determining to what extent public spaces should be
protected; they emphasize that the "crime problem" is an amalgam of disorder,
fear, serious crime, and urban decay; and they contend that the current model
of the criminal-justice system has failed by not recognizing the links between
these elements and by ignoring the role citizens can -- and must -- play in
crime prevention. They support these arguments with extensive research into
the history of policing, into how court decisions have evolved to address
public disorder, and into recent efforts to restore order and reduce crime in
America. The authors insist that, despite the many obstacles, order can be
restored in American cities, and they identify attainable policy
objectives that respect the legitimate rights of individuals while protecting
the interests of neighborhoods and communities.
Kelling and Coles recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Ryan Nally.
When you wrote "Broken Windows," were you intending it
to turn into a book?
GK: At that time, no. I had just finished the Newark Foot Patrol
Experiment -- a study designed to assess the relationship between order
maintenance and crime by putting police on foot patrol -- during which I
discovered the link between foot patrols and reduced fear in communities. James
Q. Wilson, who had been asked by The Atlantic to do a piece at the time,
asked me if I wanted to write one with him. It was a time in policing when
nothing seemed to work. The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, which
examined the relationship between response time and citizen satisfaction with
police service in responding to calls, had suggested that riding around in cars
didn't pay off, and similar response-time studies by the National Institute of
Justice in five cities questioned the efficacy of 911. I don't think Wilson or
I understood the doors we were opening up by giving voice to neighborhoods'
and communities' desperate demands for order or the potential of order
maintenance for crime prevention and control.
You make the argument that "order maintenance" is essential to restoring
order and reducing crime in America. Why is it so important?
GK: Disorder -- graffiti on a subway, prostitutes harassing husbands in
front of their wives and kids, panhandlers sticking cups under peoples' noses
-- sends very strong signals to citizens that things are out of control. And it
also sends signals to predators. Citizens no longer feel comfortable trying to
protect their own territory, and the police are indifferent.
CC: In the book we examine some of the studies that have been done around the
country, especially by Wes Skogan at Northwestern University, documenting the
links among disorderly behavior, the fear that it causes among citizens, the
gradual withdrawal of frightened citizens from the street and public places,
and the consequent lessening of social control. Those elements result in an
influx of more serious crime and the eventual movement of neighborhoods into a
downward spiral that ends in urban decay. Problems of disorder come right at
the beginning of that progression. Once they are present and then get out of
hand, the potential for serious crime and urban decay is very great.
What do you see as some of the main obstacles to order restoration?
CC: There's a real misunderstanding about some of the most basic roots
of disorder. Many people think that trying to regulate disorder means jumping
on the homeless and pitting the rights of the rich against those of the poor.
That sort of thinking is a definite obstacle. What we need to focus on is
dealing with acts by people and regulating troublesome unlawful
behavior. We are not trying to legislate against the homeless, and in no way do
we condone cities' or states' ignoring the very real problems of the poor.
Order restoration requires the adoption of a local perspective. Police,
prosecutors, and many parts of our criminal-justice processes -- I hesitate to
use the word "system" because I don't think we really have a coherent, unified
criminal-justice system -- have to be involved locally with citizens assisting
them in reclaiming their own neighborhoods.
Law obviously plays an important role in shaping the extent to which order
maintenance can be carried out. Does the law ever hinder the
maintenance of public order?
CC: Yes, but let me begin with a caveat. I don't believe that law
hinders the maintenance of public order by requiring that police respect and
protect the fundamental liberties of individual citizens. There are
other ways, however, in which the law does hinder the maintenance of
public order. One problem seems to be inherent in our legal- and
judicial-processing system: it looks at individual cases apart from the broader context
within which they take place. One individual incident of public drunkenness or
street prostitution, for example, may not be terribly troublesome, but when you
get an agglomeration of these kinds of behaviors -- around a school where there
are many kids, for instance -- then you have a much more serious situation.
Judges are asked to make decisions about the lawfulness and the impact of
individual acts. This is problematic. Increasingly we're advising cities and
states to bring into court the argument that aggregated behavior is the real
problem. One of the other problems is the tendency of advocates for the
homeless -- the ones challenging much of the order-maintenance legislation
around the country -- to present an exaggerated defense for the rights of these
individuals. Very often the argument is that the legislation is restrictive of
speech rights. What's lost in many of these cases is attention to the interests
GK: It is not just the law but how it is interpreted. For example, Tampa had a
city ordinance on loitering for the purpose of prostitution. The Supreme Court
struck down the ordinance because it felt that police officers wouldn't have
been able to tell the difference between prostitutes plying their trade and
housewives greeting their husbands, and that even if they could tell the
difference the police would still use the law to harass citizens. That sort of
thinking is unduly cynical. We're very concerned throughout Fixing Broken
Windows with how to control the police, but to suggest that order-maintenance
laws are going to be used on a wholesale basis to harass citizens is a gross
In the 1960s there was a shift away from community-based thinking to an
ethos of individualism that still thrives today in America. How has this shift
affected order maintenance?
GK: Starting in the 1960s the notion of disorderly behavior as a sign of
cultural pluralism developed and soon penetrated professional and bureaucratic
approaches to crime and disorder -- as exemplified by President Johnson's
Commission on Crime in 1967 that said that we have to do something about
disorder but that this task was not the primary business of the police. The
role of the police, according to the Commission, was to arrest people for
serious crimes and put them into the criminal-justice system. Of course that
was intuitively very appealing; it's nice to think that the police are not too
intrusive. But the result was that city streets were abandoned by police,
prosecutors, parole, and probation agents -- and therefore citizens as well.
You perceive much of modern policing as largely impersonal and unresponsive
to citizens' requests. Why?
GK: This is an historical problem that has to do with police corruption
and abuse; the main strategy this century has been largely to try to isolate
the police from communities and citizens in hopes of limiting potential sources
of corruption. Many police departments developed rules that police couldn't
"live" on their beats, and rules still exist in some police stations that ban
officers from engaging in idle conversation with citizens. Police executives
for a generation asked, How do we prevent corruption and abuse? But if you
start out with a different question -- How do you provide quality policing and
protect communities? -- and make that the primary determinant of how you
proceed, you understand that the real business of policing is to
prevent crime. The police have to be on the streets talking to citizens
because at all levels information is
the key to crime prevention. And a lot of information is gleaned from
encounters with those who commit low-level offenses. If you don't deal with
low-level offenders, often you won't get access to those people carrying guns
in the subway, for example.
Has "911 policing" contributed to this unresponsiveness as well?
GK: It's a disaster. Not only does it not do any good, it completely
drives how departments are structured. The idea that 911 is going to provide
some solution to crime is fatuous; it turns our police into an
emergency-response system. 911 has effectively de-policed American streets.
Do you think that the criminal-justice system -- the paradigm that has
determined how order should be maintained throughout this century -- will ever
change? What will be the repercussions if it does not?
CC: We're seeing change already. As I go around the country and work in
various cities, I see more and more community-based initiatives. Community
policing has perhaps received the greatest recognition, but we're also seeing
the development of community-based courts and prosecution efforts in which
prosecutors are in neighborhoods working with citizens to set priorities on
which cases to charge and prosecute. Probation and corrections officials, too,
are starting to work with communities. There is a definite movement away from
the idea that you have professional police, prosecutors, and courts all at a
distance, removed from citizens. There is also an increasing emphasis on
proactive measures and joint problem-solving efforts that bring police together
with prosecutors and citizens, and there are very broad-based efforts taking
place at the local level to address problems of public space and disorder.
GK: Clearly the criminal-justice-system model is still robust. Neither
Catherine nor I wants to trivialize it. But change is happening. Take the Safe
Neighborhood Initiatives in Boston, in which a Democratic attorney general and
a Republican district attorney have started Safe Neighborhood Initiatives
that involve all the resources of the community. Six months ago in New Haven
the community, police, and city agencies were working together, but probation
wasn't involved; now probation officers are meeting problem kids inside of the
district police stations. All over the country we're seeing new community
paradigms of crime control that operate on a whole different set of
assumptions. The old assumption was that professionals knew best and that they
would solve problems. The new model acknowledges that citizens and communities
understand their problems best and that therefore citizens should be in
leadership positions and should draw on help from criminal-justice
institutions. This repositioning of the professional versus the community in
solving problems of disorder is gaining ground rapidly.
CC: We're seeing private citizens linking up again with criminal-justice
processes. For so long we've read about how citizens are alienated from the
police, courts, and judges. What we're now witnessing is citizens taking
responsibility for public safety and crime prevention and at the same time
working with police and prosecutors. This is a fundamental change.
But how far can citizens legitimately go in restoring order to their
communities? Should vigilantism be a concern in this respect?
GK: We have to worry about going too far. Communities can be
warm and friendly places for people who live there, but they can also be petty
and mean. Police and citizen groups need to be tolerant. Because
African-American kids playing basketball on a particular court bothers some
people doesn't mean that the court should be wiped out. We're not talking about
trying to regulate life excessively. But sometimes lack of official action can
lead to intolerance. When, for example, citizens have been dealing with
aggressive drug dealers and panhandlers for a long time and see nothing being
done, they understandably become indignant and sometimes propose locking
criminals up and throwing away the key. But when community courts, such as the
Midtown Community Court in Manhattan, and police begin to take action and hold
people accountable for their behavior, these same citizens become more tolerant
CC: I often go to neighborhood-association and crime-watch-group meetings and
sometimes see examples of incipient vigilantism. Yet I also see prosecutors
meeting with groups of people in local neighborhoods, explaining which actions
are legal and which aren't. What you then have is a discussion among people who
are able to learn the appropriate limits. Citizens, in effect, become better
Adam Walinsky, in his Atlantic cover story, "The Crisis of Public
Order" (July, 1995), offered a very bleak outlook on the future of crime in
America. Yet Fixing Broken Windows ends quite optimistically regarding
the prospects for restoring order and bringing crime under control in America.
Why so optimistic?
GK: If anyone had told me in 1985 -- when every train in New York City
was covered with multiple layers of graffiti, when people were threatening
commuters and publicly urinating and defecating in trains, when panhandlers
were intimidating people, and when robberies were increasing -- that by 1995
crime would no longer be a serious problem in New York City subways, I would
have thought they were crazy. The reason we're optimistic is that we're seeing
progress and hope in city after city. New York City is the greatest example,
but we can also point to areas in Baltimore, Charlotte, Seattle, and Boston.
Had anyone said a year and a half ago that Boston would have no youth or
gang-related murders in 1996, everyone would have laughed. But because the
police have worked very carefully, and because citizen groups, prosecutors, and
probation officers have worked intelligently together after thoughtful
planning, they have achieved astounding results.
CC: The presiding judge in East Boston, for example, has developed a program in
which young people who are violators must live under a court-imposed curfew. He
has told these kids that if they get on the honor roll they're off of the
curfew. Recently he had half a dozen problem students make the honor roll as a
result. The judge knows there isn't enough jail space for everybody and that he
can't sentence every kid to jail. So instead he has worked very closely with
the community, police, and prosecutors. It's a community-based effort in which
the citizens help to set priorities for the prosecutors and police, many of
which have to do with addressing order maintenance. If you get people focused
on these things the results can be tremendous.
GK: The old model was send a car, make an arrest, and incarcerate. Those were
the only options, basically. What we're seeing now is something guided by a
point of view and set of values. Communities, the criminal-justice system, and
city agencies are moving forward, in ways that they didn't in the past, because
they have to.
More Books & Authors features in
1. Jacket photograph by Geoff Spear; jacket design by Calvin Chu.
2. Catherine M. Coles and George L. Kelling. Photo by Koby-Antupit Studio.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.