Even some defenders of Broken Windows, like Ross Douthat, acknowledge that if a municipality is to rely on a style of policing that requires frequent, on-the-street interactions between cops and people the quality of policing needs to be high. "Some liberals have decided these tactics haven’t made a difference, or that they aren’t needed anymore," he wrote. "I think this view is naïve, and dangerously so. But to sustain this kind of police work, it’s necessary to restrain the excesses associated with it; to restrain those excesses, it’s necessary to hold cops accountable. And that can only happen if we reckon with the ways in which police unions... can align against the public."
Weakening police unions is an important reform. Body cameras are an important reform. Better training is an important reform. And if there is a way to change police subculture, that is important too. But even when it comes to keeping order on an urban block, some aspects of what George Kelling and James Q. Wilson wanted done in their 1982 article on Broken Windows theory needn't necessarily be done by police officers (though cops are necessary for other parts).
They wrote that beyond the fear of violence, many people fear being bothered by "disreputable, or obstreperous, or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed." They spoke admiringly of a police officer whose job, as he saw it, "was to keep an eye on strangers, and make certain that the disreputable regulars observed some informal but widely understood rules. Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden."
They observed that these rules were "defined and enforced in collaboration with the 'regulars' on the street." If someone violated them, regulars not only turned to the police officer for help "but also ridiculed the violator." The foot patrolman sometimes did what could be described as "enforcing the law," but just as often, his salutary role "involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order."
As they saw it, failing to keep order in this fashion is dangerous:
A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change... to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. 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. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.
At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish... But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. "Don't get involved." For some residents, this growing atomization will matter little, because the neighborhood is not their "home" but "the place where they live." Their interests are elsewhere; they are cosmopolitans. But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments rather than worldly involvement; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet.
Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, 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. 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...
That muggings will occur.
Even assuming for the sake of argument that this analysis is correct, a question still looms. I can imagine a beat cop safeguarding order in my neighborhood, where aggressive homeless people sometimes yell at women on the street. Then again, a skilled social worker walking my block might have as much success and would certainly develop a sense of when the cops should be called.