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The Promise of Public Order

George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles discuss what must be done to restore order and reduce crime in America

January 1997

In the March, 1982, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling co-authored the cover story, "Broken Windows." By using the image of broken windows to explain how neighborhoods might decay -- both physically and culturally -- if no one attends faithfully to their maintenance, the authors argued that the best way to fight crime was to fight the disorder that precedes it. Plagued by graffiti, panhandling, farebeating, and a host of other problems, the New York City Transit Authority used the ideas contained in "Broken Windows" as a guide -- and even brought Kelling on as a consultant -- in an effort to restore order to the subway. The New York City Police Department soon followed suit with a community-policing strategy focusing on order maintenance. Despite initial skepticism, the strategy caught on in both organizations and has resulted in significant reductions in disorder and crime.

Excerpts from
Fixing Broken Windows:

  • Foreword by James Q. Wilson

  • Introduction

  • 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.

    colkel picture 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 of community.

    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 overstatement.

    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 and understanding.

    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 educated.

    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 Atlantic Unbound


    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.