LEN salutes its 2003 Person of the Year:
As clear as glass
With the “Broken Windows” thesis,
George Kelling puts things into focus for policing
It is unlikely that the public-relations adage “love me or hate me, just don’t ignore me” was ever intended or expected to apply to public policy, but when one is talking about the crime-control thesis known as “Broken Windows,” even its handful of detractors are hard-pressed to ignore it, and concede that it is virtually impossible to dismiss the profound impact it has had on policing over the last two decades.
“Broken Windows,” which broke onto the scene in 1982 in a cover story in The Atlantic Monthly co-authored by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, is rightfully considered, along with community policing and problem-oriented policing, as one of the three foremost ground-breaking ideas in criminal justice over the past two decades.
Based on the notion that signs of neighborhood disorder, such as broken windows and derelict vehicles, can foment a spiral of decay and lawlessness, Broken Windows posits at its most basic that when police take care of the so-called small things, such as graffiti and loitering, bigger crimes like robbery and gun violence can be curbed. The proof has been seen, proponents say, in the drastic reduction in crime in cities like New York where law enforcement officials have embraced its lessons wholeheartedly.
Kelling Lights the Way
Indeed, the influence of the three theories has been such that it would be difficult to find even a small police agency now that does not hold to some type of quality-of-life philosophy. But what has made Broken Windows stand out — and along with it Kelling, the Law Enforcement News Man of the Year for 2003 — has been its value as a link between theory and practice.
“For seeing the obvious, but translating it in a way that could be understood by practitioners as well as by public policy decision-makers, [Kelling] really enabled police to break through into the community policing and problem-oriented movements, because both those movements were powerful complimentary strategies,” Edward W. Flynn, the Massachusetts state Secretary of Public Safety, said in an interview with LEN. “For them to be effective, their practitioners really had to understand the link between those activities and crime control. George Kelling lit the way.”
Kelling’s work has been uniquely pivotal in influencing law enforcement practices and has provided theoretical backing for innovative strategies, said Eli Silverman, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “[Kelling] ratified…the intuitive collective wisdom of police,” he noted.
Kelling said that if anyone had told him back in 1982 that Broken Windows would have the “legs” it has had, he would have been stunned. When it was first published, he had anticipated a negative response from academics as well as from police officials, who he believed would be resistant to some of its ideas. But the maintenance of order was such an ingrained aspect of police work, Kelling told LEN, that he believed he and Wilson were on to an important point about the profession. “That is, that the little things matter,” he said.
Kansas City Roots
A professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey and professor emeritus of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, Kelling has served as executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
While best known for Broken Windows, Kelling was considered a leader in criminal-justice scholarship and research as far back as the early 1970s when, as evaluation field staff director of the Police Foundation, he played a principal role in the seminal Kansas City preventive patrol experiment, the evaluation of neighborhood team policing in New York City, and the Newark foot patrol experiment.
“George’s contribution to policing spans 35 years or so,” said Chief Darryl Stephens of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Police Department and a former executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “A lot of people don’t really see the connection back there, but his research work and involvement with policing over that time frame, even before Broken Windows, kind of helped lay the foundation for the innovation in community policing and problem solving we see today throughout the country.
“Obviously, Broken Windows was a theory, an idea that really sort of opened people’s eyes,” Stephens told LEN, “and once they started thinking about that and comparing it with their own experiences, the arguments that he and James Q. Wilson were advancing, it had a certain amount of common sense to it, as well. I think that’s been an enormous contribution to policing in America.”
It was extraordinary luck, Kelling said, that he was able to use the New York City subway system as a laboratory for Broken Windows. Another aspect of the theory to emerge from that — the one that is perhaps the most easily grasped at this point in its evolution — is that those who think the rules do not apply to them in big ways, think they do not apply in small ways, either. It is often how they are caught.
“While not all fare-beaters were criminals, a lot of criminals were fare-beaters,” Kelling said of the subway experiment. “So it turns out that enforcement of laws against minor offenses puts [police] in contact with high-rate offenders. That was a wrinkle I don’t think we anticipated.”
That outcome has been replicated in other studies, as well, Kelling points out. Research done in England has found that those who park illegally in handicapped parking places have bad driving records. The first day that police in Newark, N.J., began enforcing laws regarding bicycle riding, he said, they found two or three guns.
“I think that kind of anecdotal evidence is starting to come in, and some of the distortions that I think critics of Broken Windows have created, I think, have been unconvincing in the policy and policing world, because there are now very few departments that wouldn’t say they use quality-of-life enforcement,” said Kelling. “That’s just an ingrained part of public policy at the present time.”
Troubled by Zero Tolerance
What Kelling refers to as “distortions” of Broken Windows include the zero-tolerance policies, sweeps and crackdowns that some jurisdictions have implemented in its name, and for which critics have taken him to task. Kelling has never endorsed such methods, and has stressed the need for intensive training of local police before departments embark on a quality-of-life footing. The issue was re-examined by Kelling and Catherine M. Coles in a follow-up work titled “Fixing Broken Windows,” published by The Free Press in 1996.
“Critics of Broken Windows are right when they point out there’s an enormous potential for abuse here,” said Kelling. “And while charges of criminalizing the homeless and criminalizing the poor are hyperbole, I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s an enormous potential for abuse. When some police department one day hears about Broken Windows and says, ‘Tomorrow, we’re going to start a Broken Windows program here,’ I get very nervous.”
Kelling believes guidelines can and should be developed for situations in which the action to be taken is left up to officers’ discretion.
“I think departments, at great risk and at great risk to policy, at times stumble into these phrases like ‘use your common sense,’ and things like that, which sound like personal inclination and bias rather than effective policing,” he said.
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