For a generation, American cops have aggressively policed many urban neighborhoods based on the premise that cracking down on minor street disorder would avert spikes in more serious crime. While reviled by some, the so-called broken-windows theory is still defended by many in law enforcement. Maybe it’s time they applied it to themselves.
According to the broken-windows theory, just as a building with one broken window is vulnerable to additional vandalism, a neighborhood with visible signs of minor disorder, such as graffiti and littering, is vulnerable to criminal invasion. “It is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped,” George Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote in The Atlantic in 1982. “That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes’ customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently.”
Kelling and Wilson advised police to focus on maintaining order in neighborhoods that hadn’t quite tipped from disorder to violent crime, and emphasized that maintaining order requires more than arresting lawbreakers. They also argued that it requires enforcing the community standards desired by residents of a given neighborhood in a way not easily reconciled with legalistic notions of due process.