ON-Lion Letter

"A lot of sins have been committed in the name of 'broken windows,'" begins an August article by George Kelling in Politico Magazine.  "Broken windows" is the name that the late Bradley Prize recipient and criminologist James Q. Wilson and Kelling "gave to a new theory of policing more than 30 years ago -- it was the title of an essay we published in in the Atlantic in 1982 -- in which we argued that small things matter in a community and, if nothing is done about them, they can lead to worse things.  We expressed this in a metaphor:  Just as a broken window left untended in a building is a sign that nobody cares, leading typically to more broken windows -- more damage -- so disorderly conditions and behaviors left untended in a community are signs that nobody cares and lead to fear of crime, more serious crime, and urban decay.

Kelling is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which is substantially supported by Milwaukee's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and an emeritus professor at Rutgers University.  Bradley also supported the research and writing of his new book Policing in Milwaukee:  A Strategic History, from Marquette University Press.

"Today, with the highly publicized deaths of a number of African-Americans at the hands of white police officers over the past year, so-called broken-windows policing has come under attack by activists and academics alike," Kelling continues.  "Some have argued that this approach to policing might have been appropriate in the days of high crime during the 1970s and 1980s, but is no longer relevant since crime rates have declined.  Others claim that broken windows is responsible for the high rate of incarceration.  Others yet say that broken windows does not prevent crime.

"I would argue that our theory has been largely misunderstood," he responds.  "First of all, broken windows was never intended to be a high-arrest program.  Although it has been practiced as such in many cities, neither Wilson nor I ever conceived of it in those terms.  Broken-windows policing is a highly discretionary set of activities that seeks the least intrusive means of solving a problem -- whether that problem is street prostitution, drug dealing in a park, graffiti, abandoned buildings, or actions such as public drunkenness.  Moreover, depending on the problem, good broken windows policing seeks partners to address it:  social workers, city code enforcers, business improvement district staff, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, and others.  The goal is to reduce the level of disorder in public spaces so that citizens feel safe, are able to use them, and businesses thrive.  Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort -- not the first.

"[P]olice themselves have not always applied a broken-windows approach in a manner in which it is most effective as a crime prevention and control technique, while compatible with and responsive to community goals and desires," Kelling concludes.  "Both are crucial to good broken-windows policing -- which by its nature depends upon the exercise of seasoned discretion and wise judgment by trained police officers familiar with and sensitive to the local community.  At the same time, many critics of order maintenance by police fail to understand either the fundamental theory behind its use, or actual positive outcomes that have been documented in its application in numerous cities across the country -- outcomes that make it a police tactic worth pursuing."

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