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
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Good officers, said Kelling, look at context as well as behavior. In Kelling’s view, the two are closely, if not inextricably linked. One example he likes to cite concerns a couple of panhandlers who hung around the entrance of a Boston subway stop. At 8 o’clock in the morning, he said, the men’s behavior did not seem threatening; at 10 o’clock at night, it did.
Squeegee men are another example. During the 1990s, when then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton were trying to rid New York City’s streets of its ubiquitous squeegee men as part of a broader quality-of-life enforcement initiative, Kelling asked if he could be driven to a spot where he could interview one of the window washers. He was paired with a patrol officer considered to be among the most aggressive when it came to squeegee enforcement.
While driving down the street, the officer called a squeegee man over by name and warned him to stay off the street that night because there would be a crackdown. Kelling asked him why he had given the man a pass, and the officer, he said, replied that the fellow was a Vietnam veteran who supplemented his pension by asking motorists if he could wash their windows. He did not want to see this man, who was not a threat, spend a night in jail.
“In my mind, that was discretion at its best,” Kelling told LEN. “I don’t think anyone believes that a Broken Windows policy is going to wipe out all panhandling or prostitution, but it’s going to change how it’s done.”
Kelling’s work has also been challenged conceptually by fellow academics. In 2001, the National Institute of Justice released “Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods – Does it Lead to Crime?” a study by Stephen W. Raudenbush of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, and Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, which asserted that while disorder and crime were related, one does not lead to the other. [See LEN, March 15, 2001.]
Sampson said he and Raudenbush disagree with Kelling on two points. They do not view disorder and crime and causally linked, but rather as elements of the same larger phenomenon. And even if disorder could be separated from criminal activity, he said, both could be caused by another common condition, such as the concentration of poverty in a neighborhood, its composition, and the cohesiveness of its members.
“Our research tended to suggest that these other characteristics, in part, explained the relationship away,” Sampson told LEN. “Not fully, because disorder was still related to certain crimes, like robbery. So we saw it as a partial rejection of the idea that there is a direct causal link...”
The paper was met with a blistering rebuttal by Kelling in LEN [March 15, 2001], who said Sampson and Raudenbush had, among other things, deliberately misrepresented Broken Windows by suggesting that it advocated cleaning up disorder through law enforcement techniques.
Broken Windows, said Kelling, “almost always has to be done in consultation with neighborhoods, with business improvement districts. That for me has always been an integral part of community policing. Broken Windows apart from community policing misses an important dimension and that is pursuit of the consent of citizens and the cooperation and collaboration of citizens.”
During the Giuliani years in New York, said Kelling, Broken Windows became ensnared in the debate between conservatives and liberals. The argument was that crime had been slashed, but at the cost of increased police harassment and brutality, he said.
“It’s hard to develop evidence that that’s really the case,” said Kelling. “During the decade, complaints declined, shootings, killing of citizens went from something like 42 in the last years of [Mayor David] Dinkins to 11 in the bad old [Amadou] Diallo year of 1998.
“Again, I think zero tolerance is an attempt to portray Broken Windows as a form of zealotry that leads to arbitrary and rote responses on the part of police,” he asserted. “That is certainly nothing I ever advocate and that very few police will become involved in.”
While some academics may dispute the finer points of Broken Windows, there has been little dissension from practitioners.
“What [Kelling] really enabled police to do is take seriously the majority of police work, which was non-criminal, and realize it was important intrinsically, that is was important ultimately in terms of dealing with crime, and most importantly of all, our work on order maintenance was the glue that could hold increasingly diverse societies together in their urban stasis,” said Massachusetts’ Flynn.
As a young lieutenant in the Jersey City Police Department, Flynn recalled, there was not much he could do about implementing Broken Windows, although the article left him “thunderstruck” as he realized how many of his own observations were codified by the theory.
When he became chief in Chelsea, Mass., Flynn said he had the opportunity to “apply the lessons [Kelling] had learned for us.” He continued to use those ideas, he said, as chief in Arlington County, Va., a jurisdiction with “the most diverse ZIP code in the U.S.”
Metaphor for a Mindset
Chief Robert Olson of the Minneapolis Police Department said he found it remarkable that someone could take a phrase and turn it into a metaphor for an entire mindset in law enforcement.
“Today, I would challenge anyone to go through any police department, city hall, mayor, anybody who’s involved in government, not just policing…you say to them ‘Broken Windows,’ and they will look at you with a knowing look and know what that is,” he told LEN. “They may not be able to articulate it well — depending on who you talk to — but they know that means that society needs to take care of the little things and the big things will take of themselves.”
Not even Kelling, Olson said, would have thought to apply the Broken Windows concept to terrorism. But the theory has developed such a mindset in law enforcement that when faced with a new challenge, police are already thinking in that mode, he said.
And it has been the case that terrorists have to commit small criminal acts to position themselves for larger ones, Kelling agrees, citing an article in The Wall Street Journal that found that a cell of terrorist operating in Bonn, Germany, committed a variety of minor offenses. Timothy McVeigh, he noted, was caught committing a traffic offense.
Kelling sees three ways in which terrorism can be prevented: environmental design, technology and community policing. Intelligence sharing between federal agencies and local law enforcement has improved, he said, but continues to be problematic due to bureaucratic traditions.
Flynn said he fears that with an increasing number of criminal-justice grant programs suffering cuts in appropriations in order to increase funding for homeland security, the crime-control gains made throughout the 1990s will be lost through de-policing and loss of attention to public order.
Think Globally, Act Locally
A “federal-centric” homeland security approach, he told LEN, fails to take into account the great potential for local law enforcement to provide assistance.
“We can develop intelligence that’s useful, the same way we developed information about narcotics activity, gambling activity and a wide range of other criminal activity,” said Flynn. “Neighborhoods that trust us will tell us.”
Last year, Kelling, in conjunction with the Manhattan Institute, convened a meeting of state and local chiefs whose jurisdictions run along the Interstate 95 corridor between Massachusetts and Maryland. The I-95 group, as it is called, explores ways of working more cooperatively on complicated issues like terrorism.
One of the chiefs who is part of this I-95 group is Edward Davis of the Lowell, Mass., Police Department. As a result of the first two meetings he attended, Davis told LEN, his agency’s intelligence officers now meet on a regular basis to discuss individuals and cases that extend across state lines.
“I think George clearly sees there is a need in that area,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of focus on local police agencies; the federal government has tasked the FBI with this issue. They’ve come a long way over the past few years in working on intelligence sharing and also being more inclusive of state and local agencies in the process, but there is a benefit to having the local agencies have their own systems in place where intelligence officers know each other, and information can be passed easily up and down that particular piece of geography in the Northeast.”
Yet most people continue to apply Broken Windows to neighborhood issues, asserted Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Chief Stephens. While people want to talk about terrorism these days, he said, police still have drug-dealing locations, disorder in the community and many of the similar challenges that the theory was designed to meet.
“Many departments are stretched very thin today because of additional responsibility,” he said. “But they’re still applying those theories in the same way.”
On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Police Department is getting some hands-on guidance from Kelling. He has been asked by Bratton, who took command of the agency in 2002, to help with five problems. The first and most pressing is the homicide rate, said Kelling. The plan is to try and find ways to deal with gang violence. The second has to do with the city’s Skid Row. While there is a great deal of “political rhetoric,” he said, about homelessness, it is lawlessness which is the problem. The other three include gang congregation in McArthur Park, car theft and gang violence in the San Fernando Valley, and prostitution concerns along Hollywood Boulevard.