Broken Windows...A Powerful Strategy, When Applied Robustly

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“Public order is a fragile thing, and if you don’t fix the first broken window, soon all the windows will be broken.”~James Q. Wilson

There is an terrific article from 1982 on the Broken Windows theory By GEORGE L. KELLING and JAMES Q. WILSON in the Atlantic Magazine. Mr Wilson who died March 2nd 2012 and MR. Kelling had some great ideas and insights into crime and violence and on how to reduce it. The “broken windows theory”  is very familiar to cops working the street and is the catalyst to “community policing” and its evolution in law enforcement over the past 30 years. The term “broken widows” is a metaphor for all crime, crime problems and violence as well as quality of life issues people relate to a productive society. The theory is very sound most especially when translated, practiced and applied on the streets. Broken windows and community policing leverages the mutual trust factor between police and the community and builds upon it so collaborative efforts are made in solving hosts of problems within a community. The theory, has been proven in the locations that had adopted the theory and translated it robustly to their philosophy of policing and to their communities. In other words they, “community and cops” lived and breathed the strategy and implemented problem solving methods to see it through. In doing so they saw results, a reduction of crime and violence and a better quality of life.

One of the problems with the community policing philosophy is that law enforcement agencies in many locations has only talked about broken windows and community policing theories. Some agencies used the buzzwords associated with community policing in PR campaigns, and efforts to obtain grants and other resources but they failed to walk their talk in creating the sense of urgency throughout their ranks and the community. They never or half-heartedly executed community policing principles. This lack of effort by some agencies gave the strategy a bad name in law enforcement circles and many community members began to see through it, as an all talk no action  plan to curtail negative talk about their police departments. Due to this half-hearted approach some street cops saw it as B.S. and weak on crime. Cops thought of the philosophy in much the same way community members saw it, as a ploy for better public relations and an ineffective strategy to deal with crime. Therefore resistance to changes took hold in many locations throughout law enforcement and implementing  the philosophy despite its documented benefits were stifled. This is one of the reasons why so many law enforcement agencies still implement random patrols and rapid response techniques as part of their patrol strategies. Strategies that have been proven ineffective over and over again in solving the root causes of crime and violence. 

“Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police -- and the rest of us -- ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.” ~George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson

Take a look at this powerful piece (about 5 pages), think about it and ask, what if police departments implemented the strategy and built these recommended relationships with vigor 30 years ago, would things be different? Would law enforcement be supported more by their communities? Would the crime and violence be down in your community? Would drug and alcohol abuse be down and hence the problems associated with them?  Would the distrust and lack of understanding of law enforcement and what our mission is, be better understood? Would we be more effective? Would we community and cops be safer? Would the image of law enforcement officers portrayed by the media often in a negative light, be more positive? When reasonable force is utilized by law enforcement would force utilized be seen as it actual is, a rare occurrence and cops be given the benefit of the doubt verses them being portrayed as abusing their power and as bullies taking advantage of their power? Would cops be seen by the majority as a positive factor, as part of society and those who are in their positions to protect and serve? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when I think of community policing and the broken windows theory. Mutual trust is created and nurtured by interacting with the community and builds this type of connection as the people we serve get to see who we are and WHY we have chosen the law enforcement profession. 

…”We suggest that "untended" behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, 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 or violent attacks on strangers will occur. 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.”

Isn’t it time we started thinking just a little bit more about how we police? Isn’t time we started walking our talk, get out of the patrol cars, and connect with those we protect and serve? Isn’t it time we started to implement these ideas in a robust way so we influence the community in a positive way towards our profession? Cops are good people doing a tough and at times dangerous job that is often times paid with their lives. People should know this, but they are not going to learn anything about the reality of who we are and what we do if we stay glued to our patrol cars waiting to respond to calls for service. Our country is in for some tougher times, that will challenge police and their communities so please get out there and connect with those we serve so they know the true meaning of WHY we DO what we do and that we are in this thing together. The alterative will be costly! 

To read the complete article “Broken Windows” click here 

Stay Oriented!

Fred