Broken Windows Policing Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

If you have followed police issues at all over the past decade, you have probably heard the term “Broken Windows Policing.” You might think that it means something along the lines of what the New York Times said it means this January, a policing strategy premised on the belief that “summonses issued and arrests made for minor offenses preclude the eruption of major crimes.” If so, you are completely wrong. But don’t worry, you are not alone.

George Kelling and James Wilson unveiled Broken Windows in the Atlantic in 1982. Their article synthesized two entirely unrelated lines of research into a single theory on police, community involvement, and civic pride, a theory that essentially remains untested because it has been so misunderstood that it has not really been implemented anywhere. 

First, the “broken windows” part of the theory, which postulates that people who would ordinarily not engage in vandalism will do so if they see that their neighborhood permits it. The key study here involved leaving a car on the streets of Palo Alto – no one touched it until the researcher broke one window, at which point, everyone took their turn and reduced it to scraps. This conclusion makes basic sense to all of us – you would never think to mark up the bathroom wall at Le Bernadin, but if you’re in CBGBs, what’s the difference. 

Second, the “policing” side. For this prong, Kelling and Wilson looked to a study regarding increased use of foot patrols in Newark. Patrol officers would enforce a set of informal rules: drunks could sit on stoops, but could not lie down. Strangers to the neighborhood were “sent on their way” if they loitered. The foot patrols did not reduce crime—they only reduced people’s perception of crime. Residents surveyed reported that they felt safer, though evidence showed crime had not decreased.

Kelling and Wilson hypothesized that this feeling of greater security was the stirring of an actual greater security. The idea is that once the community feels safe, people will take control of their neighborhood. Combined with the lesson of the vandalized car, the Broken Windows Theory of Policing guesses that by enforcing a community’s standards of order, patrol officers will empower that community to drive away more serious crime. Reading the article, you get the sense of the police as a bunch of low-level scolds, riding the buses and subways and kicking off people who drink or smoke, but not actually arresting anyone. Kelling has recently stated that to this day he is “not long on arrests as an outcome.”

This is a very different image than one has of the NYPD during (with apologies to Howard Safir and Bernie Kerik) the Bratton-Kelly-Bratton era.  During that era, the NYPD has engaged in two often-conflated policing strategies that in fact are quite distinct. The first is to enforce traditionally “minor” crimes vigorously, with summonses and arrests. This is not Broken Windows (where there are community-specific standards for what is enforced and arrest is rarely part of the equation); it is “zero tolerance,” a strategy traditionally associated with summons and arrest quotas.

The second strategy is stop-and-frisk.  Stop-and-frisk as a policing strategy, rather than a patrol tactic, is now associated with Ray Kelly, whose theory was and remains that if violent criminals know that there is a high chance they will be frisked for guns while walking down the street, they will not walk down the street armed. The only way to make violent criminals think there is a high chance they will be frisked is to stop and frisk an enormous number of people. The consequences of this strategy have been dealt with at length elsewhere, including federal court, and I won’t get into them more here.

The origins of this theory, however, are perhaps less well understood. The stop-and-frisk theory’s origin was a simple change in policy that Bill Bratton instituted as head of the transit police in 1990: he aggressively pursued fare-beating.  The theory then was that anyone that commits a major crime in the subway probably got on the subway by jumping a turnstile.  Stop the turnstile beaters, and you cut down crime. The theory worked spectacularly, and Bratton deserves enormous credit for this simple change. The drop in crime on the subways had big implications for the city--safe subway commutes were a precondition for major changes seen in Brooklyn and Queens in the past twenty years. 

When Bratton first became commissioner of the NYPD, he applied what he had learned in the transit system to the streets.  If muggers can be stopped at the turnstile, then maybe they can be stopped at the door of their apartment as well. 

But subways are a closed system, and going in without paying is at least actually breaking the law. The streets of New York are an open system, and the only way to stop the gun-packers was to go and find them. Stops and frisks increased initially under Bratton in an acknowledged search for guns.  They increased much more under Kelly, and in Bratton’s second stint the practice was shut down. But it was Bratton’s brainchild, an outgrowth of his successful transit strategy.

And while Bratton has largely curtailed stop-and-frisk, he remains loyal to what he calls Broken Windows, but which is actually zero tolerance.  It is not Broken Windows because not only are the enforcement standards the same across the city, and not only does it rely on arrests rather than a nudge, but it is not Broken Windows because the windows aren’t getting fixed. For the theory to work, the physical disorder must also be cleared away.  But a kid who lives in the Walt Whitman houses, seeing that his apartment has mold and the buzzers on his doors don’t work, who knows he can get a summons for riding his bike on the sidewalk or arrested for a joint, does not think that the police are enforcing community standards.

There is a movement now to “end Broken Windows policing.”  It’s hard to know what to make of such a plea, in light of the facts on the ground in New York. Because despite the fact that police commissioners have been citing to the article for decades, in New York at least, Broken Windows policing can’t be ended—it was never actually begun.