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George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles
From Fixing Broken Windows
(The Free Press, 1996)


With fear of crime at all-time high levels, our national political leaders propose dramatic solutions to the "crime problem." They focus on capital punishment, "three strikes you're out" incarceration policies, construction of more prisons, tighter gun control, and increasing the number of police on the streets.

Yet the current crime problem is being debated in far richer and more complex terms locally. Certainly, local politicians and media voice great concern about some of the same issues: violence, serious crime, and the prevalence of weapons on the streets. Citizens, however, are demanding that order be restored to streets, parks, and other public spaces. The voices and demands are starting to change how local political leaders especially, but many police and criminal justice professionals as well, are redefining and addressing our cities' crime problem.

Recently, Kelling spent an evening in a tough inner-city minority neighborhood in a large Eastern city, walking with neighborhood residents, a community organizer/neighborhood lawyer, and a foot patrol officer. The residents pointed with pride to abandoned rowhouses boarded up as a result of legal action they had taken, cleaned up vacant lots, one of which had been converted to a neighborhood garden, and streets that were now empty of drug dealers. Yet at one major intersection they encountered what could only be described as an open-air drug market. At first, the group watched from a distance: perhaps fifty people were on the street, some hailing cars and negotiating deals, others watching for police. A few just watched what was going on. As we approached, the watchers spotted the offficer and the alert went out: "Joanna, Joanna" -- the local argot for police. Dealing fell off and then stopped as dealers slowly moved in various directions -- just far enough to observe the group but close enough to return later for business as usual. Many youths, especially the youngest, just stood and observed. What was most dismaying about that corner that evening was the presence of children no older than eleven and twelve. What they saw was not brutal or abusive cops, but governmental authority as a bad joke. It was clear who controlled that section of public space -- not citizens or government, but drug dealers. Similar scenarios are played out on city corners throughout the United States.

We have no doubt that many of the dealers operating that night had previous records and probably were either on probation or parole or awaiting hearings on other charges. Yet where were the probation officers, parole officers, prosecutors? Why were they not out there as part of the neighborhood team to regain and keep control of the streets, sending a strong message that residents and government criminal justice agents would not tolerate dealers taking over streets and terrorizing neighborhoods? Why was the police officer, a well-intended and concerned young person who expressed indignation at conditions there, assigned only irregularly and on an overtime basis to this neighhorhood rather than on a permanent fixed assignment? Of course, we know the offficial answers. Probation and parole agents are overwhelmed by their caseloads. Prosecutors must concentrate on serious cases and their caseload. Police are overwhelmed by 911 calls. And it is more efficient for all of these professionals to operate out of centralized facilities. But lurking behind these rationales are professional and bureaucratic models of performance and personal motivations that have little to do with neighborhood safety.

Happily, many police departments and a few probation, parole, and prosecutorial agencies are starting to seriously question their assumptions and operating strategies and shift to community, problem-solving approaches. At the same time, while citizens are demanding order and some police and criminal justice agencies are responding to them, civil libertarians, civil liberty unions, and advocates for the homeless are pushing in exactly the opposite direction. The vociferousness of this controversy cannot be exaggerated. Local papers run daily news stories, editorials, op-ed pieces, and letters detailing both public concern and intense controversy about neighborhood disorder.

In San Francisco, one of America's most socially and politically liberal cities, for example, the last two mayoral elections have turned on issues having to do with homelessness and disorder. During the late 1980s, Mayor Arthur Agnos refused to move encampments of the homeless out of public parks, especially the Civic Center. Consequently, the Civic Center was dubbed "Camp Agnos" and became a major issue in the 1991 mayoral election. Frank Jordan, a retired police officer, was elected mayor on the basis of his pledges to restore order. Four years later, during the next campaign, Mayor Jordan's program to restore order, Operation Matrix, dominated the political debate. His successor, Willie Brown, ended Operation Matrix but reassured citizens that he would still enforce the laws against persons who camped, drank, or committed minor crimes in parks and public places. San Francisco's preoccupation with disorder was not unusual: during the 1993 mayoral race in New York City both candidates, David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani, ran against "squeegeemen" -- youths who extort money from car drivers by washing car windows.

Such stories voice both strong indignation on the part of many local citizens, merchants, and urban dwellers about the insults, threats, and incivilities they face daily, and an increasingly articulate and politically powerful demand that something be done about rampant disorder. But they also reflect the equally forceful belief of civil libertarians and homeless advocates that intolerance and injustice are cloaked within the demand for order.

Why, with violence rampant in many areas of cities, are neighborhood residents preoccupied with issues such as encampments, squeegeeing, panhandling, prostitution, and other forms of disorder? Are they creating scapegoats of the poor, minorities, lower classes, and youths? Helen Hershkoff of the American Civil Liberties Union argues: "In an effort to deal with the enormous increase in poverty and homelessness in cities across the country during the past decade, numerous municipalities are enforcing, with renewed vigor, Iong-dormant ordinances prohibiting the destitute from asking members of the public for money." Are we regressing to the idea of "dangerous classes"?

No. Such charges merely obfuscate what are essentially legitimate claims -- caricaturing them as racism and economic injustices.

Despite assertions by many libertarians, attempts to restore order do not pit rich against poor or black against white. The demand for order permeates all social classes and ethnic groups. When patrons of New York's subways demanded order, it was not bankers and stockbrokers who voiced the greatest concern -- they, after all, had other options. Rather, it was working persons of all races who relied upon public transportation and craved decent and civil means of travel.

Second, those demanding order are not, for the most part, moral imperialists. Most persons opposed to prostitution in San Francisco's Tenderloin area, for example, are not prudish vigilantes concerned about commercial sex as a matter of principle. They simply object to the promiscuous behavior of prostitutes and johns, who publicly commit sex acts in parked cars, discard prophylactics and needles on sidewalks, doorstoops, and in public parks, unmindful of the play of children, and who disregard public requests for some circumspection in their behavior.

Finally, advocates for the restoration of order are not proposing some form of tyranny of the majority. Most are well aware of the excesses of the past and the dangers inherent in balancing individual rights against broader community claims. We speak here of behavior that violates widely accepted standards and norms of behavior, and about which a broad consensus exists, in spite of racial, ethnic, and class differences.

This dispute is not just political -- it is legal and is being fought in the courts. As Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation correctly prophesied: "When a city decides to do something about public order, the first question is 'will we get sued?' The answer, inevitably, is yes." And given the special role of the courts in the United States as the final arbiter of much of public policy, citizens, the media, and public professionals -- especially police and criminal justice professionals -- must understand the shape and logic of the legal thinking that will determine the important public policy issues about crime and its management.

Yet, as a rule, the general public knows little about these suits or the legal and social logic that resolves them. Take a recent New York City example. Two young persons, Jennifer Loper and William Kaye, moved from their parents' suburban homes onto New York City's streets in 1990. They partially supported themselves by begging in the East Village. Occasionally, police ordered them to move on under the city's anti-panhandling ordinance. Neither Loper nor Kaye suggested that police had said or done anything more threatening than ordering them to move on. Yet, in 1992, represented by lawyers who had earlier unsuccessfully challenged the New York City subway's ban on panhandling, Loper and Kaye sued the city, alleging that their free speech rights had been violated and that the city's anti-panhandling ordinance was unconstitutional. At the time, most police, even police administrators, were unaware of the existence of the anti~panhandling law, let alone the suit. Federal Judge Robert W. Sweet agreed with Loper and Kaye, elevating their begging to a political statement about poverty, inequitable distribution of wealth, and lack of adequate housing and, as such, deserving of First Amendment protection. Citizens certainly are aware of panhandling; few realize, however, that the court has essentially provided it with First Amendment protection.

Yet, as citizens experience the crime problem it includes panhandling as surely as more violent crimes. Those of us who live, work, and play in cities face an amalgam of disorder, fear, serious crime, and urban decay: the crime problem does not begin with serious, or "index" crime. Conceiving of it and addressing it as such, as has occurred for thirty years in national debates about crime, leads to bad public policy, poor legal thinking and practice, and distorted criminal justice practices and priorities. The distinctions among disorder, fear, and serious crime are not trivial. Citizens understand the experiences of disorder and fear, quite apart from serious crime, and want something done about them.

It is not too late to restore order and regain control of streets -- if certain policy shifts are made, gains in public safety and perception of safety follow relatively rapidly. We already have examples of such successes, impressive successes in very difficult circumstances. In this book we identify realistic and attainable policy objectives that respect the legitimate rights of individuals while protecting the interest of neighborhoods and communities. This does not mean that policy shifts will be easily achieved. Powerful factors sustain the policy bias toward serious crime. After all, citizens do fear its dangers. Obstreperous youths may be bothersome, but unless obstreperousness turns into real danger to life and property, it is only that. All other things being equal, which they are not, it would make sense to concentrate on serious crime, especially in a world of limited resources. Two additional factors, each powerful in its own right, perpetuate the single-minded fixation on felonies: first, a broad societal ideology holds certain individual rights as absolute and virtually divorced from responsibility and obligation. This ideology gave rise to the idea that all forms of nonviolent deviance should be tolerated in the interest of liberty -- a belief that order maintenance confronts directly. Second, the reigning criminal justice strategy is consistent with this libertarian ideology, internally congruent and intuitively reasonable. Its keystone is the idea of a professional "criminal justice system" as the primary means by which society controls crime. The police are the "front end" of this system -- law-enforcement officers who make their primary contribution to community and neighborhood life by arresting and processing offenders into this system. Keeping the peace, solving citizen problems, resolving conflicts, and maintaining order are at best seen as distracting peripheral functions and, at worst, as despised "social work."

Alas this model has failed dismally in its own terms: serious crime has been at unacceptable levels for three decades. The model has failed because it does not recognize the links between disorder, fear, serious crime, and urban decay. And, the criminal justice system model has also failed because it ignores the role of citizens in crime prevention.

Yet, we are optimistic. Citizens are demanding policies and practices that will improve the quality of neighborhood life. They are impatient for change and have put police, prosecutors, corrections officials, and courts on notice. During the 1960s and 1970s, when prosperity was with us, when the next job would be better than the last, and paychecks would constantly expand, many citizens believed they could leave a deteriorating neighborhood for a better one. For many this is no longer possible. Residents and merchants alike are staying in Boston's Dorchester, Milwaukee's West Side, Seattle's University District, San Francisco's Tenderloin area, and New York's Columbia Heights, and demanding that deterioration be arrested and order restored. Most importantly, citizens are taking to the streets to reclaim them.

If society does criminalize certain behaviors, how do we ensure that police are kept from using these laws to harass outcasts, the poor, and minorities? This question is especially important when one understands that police and criminal justice agencies have a sorry record when it comes to respecting, let alone protecting, the rights of minorities and the poor. The racist comments of retired Los Angles detective Mark Fuhrman are but one example of unofficial police policies aimed at repressing minorities and the poor. As worrisome, many police, prosecutors, and corrections agents have been sequestered in cars or offfices for so long that they have lost their street wisdom and problem-solving skills. Many, frankly, have been out of touch with the good citizens of neighborhoods for so long that they are afraid to leave their cars or offices.

In spite of these obstacles, order can be restored in American cities. The police are uniquely positioned to assist in order restoration and maintenance through their historical role as problem solvers in the community: in fact, citizen demands for order have been met in many cities with new police strategies emphasizing order maintenance and crime prevention, as well as citizen involvement in crime control efforts in concert with police A new paradigm of community-based policing, and even community-based prosecution and probation, is taking hold in various forms around the country, offering citizens the opportunity to redefine and become directly involved in crime control and quality-of-life programs in their communities. The viability of life in urban America may depend upon whether order can be restored before urban decline has progressed to irreversible proportions, whether the police are permitted to play an effective role in the process, and whether the courts will uphold order-maintenance efforts on behalf of communities struggling against the very real threats posed by disorder.

In Chapter 1, we explore the consequences of misunderstanding the crime problem today, the nature of what we call disorderly behavior in cities, and the grave threat it poses to our society. Chapter 2 turns to an examination of how we got to where we are today: that is, how disorder proliferated with the growth of an ethos of individualism and increasing legislative and judicial support for protecting the fundamental rights of individuals at the expense of community interests. Chapter 3 looks more directly at policing, in particular at the failure of the old reform model that has dominated police practices and strategies for most of this century. This model is at its height with 911 policing -- a serious impediment to reforms in policing that we believe are necessary. In Chapter 4, we examine in detail the New York City Police Department, which is moving strongly in the direction of community policing and focusing on order maintenance and attention to disorclerly behavior, or quality-of-life crimes, as well as index crimes. Police efforts have been met with equal energy and commitment by private initiatives undertaken by citizens, merchants, and more recently experiments in the courts and community-based prosecution. With Chapter 5 we attempt to define the basic elements of the new model of policing that we believe holds great hope for rejuvenating our cities: community policing. We also meet head-on the most significant problems of implementing this new form of policing: the need for a significant amount of police discretion to be used by line officers in their daily work, and at the same time the means that might be used to control and shape officers' discretion. In Chapter 6 we turn again to an account of actual events in three cities as they have moved toward restoring order in public places. In Baltimore, San Francisco, and Seattle initiatives have arisen from different sources -- merchants joining together in business improvement districts to improve downtown areas; a city administration working on all fronts with police, private citizens, and social agencies to implement a city-wide program to restore order to parks and public places; and a city attorney working closely with citizen groups and local government to implement legislation. All faced resistance to their efforts, yet all provide impressive examples of what can be achieved when resources are mustered and applied to the goal of order restoration. Finally, in Chapter 7 we put forward a community crime control model that we believe is taking form in communities throughout the country. This model restores responsibility to communities and establishes new mechanisms of police and criminal justice accountability to neighborhoods and communities.

Reducing crime through order maintenance, in the final analysis, requires the exercise of good citizenship. Citizens must accept responsibility both for their own behavior and for helping to ensure the safety and security of fellow citizens. Order arises out of what Jane Jacobs has called the "small change" of urban life: the day-to-day respect with which we deal with others and the concern that we exercise for their privacy, welfare, and safety. Such respect and concern does not divide rich from poor, black from white, or one ethic group from another. Instead, it unites divers neighborhoods against those who behave in outrageous ways, and who prey on the weak and vulnerable. Police and criminal justice agencies in a democratic society should be part and parcel of such communities -- the citizens as police and police as citizens, as Sir Robert Peel the founder of modern Anglo-Saxon policing put it -- both encouraging tolerance for differences and supporting citizen efforts to control the unruly and predators.

  • Return to The Promise of Public Order: An Interview with George Kelling and Catherine Coles.

    Copyright © 1996 Fixing Broken Windows, by George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles. Reprinted by arrangement with The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.