Law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods keep proving criminologist George Kelling right. Kelling died Monday at his home in New Hampshire. He was 83.
Go to a police-community meeting in any troubled neighborhood — whether the South Side of Chicago or South Central Los Angeles — and you will rarely hear complaints about what most criminologists call “serious” crimes, such as robbery or shootings.
Instead, residents will plead for surcease from open-air drug dealing, the unruly teens colonizing corners, loud music and other affronts to civility. Kelling recognized this yearning for public order among the poor and in so doing created one of the most important contributions to urban policy in the last half century: the Broken Windows theory of policing.
Kelling formulated that theory in a seminal 1982 essay in The Atlantic, coauthored with social scientist James Q. Wilson. “Broken Windows” grew out of Kelling’s passion for observing what police officers actually do.
He had accompanied cops walking foot beats in Newark and documented how they enforced local norms of order, whether keeping panhandlers away from bus shelters or rousting unknown loiterers. The law-abiding residents of the community backed the officers wholeheartedly.
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Kelling and Wilson hypothesized that communities where public disorder goes unchecked were likely to enter a spiral of decline. Most people avoid public spaces perceived as being out of control, fearing that such hubs of disorder give cover to criminals. That perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the law-abiding stay indoors, ceding terrain to miscreants. As aggressive begging, public inebriation and vandalism increase, thieves and robbers spot an environment where they can target victims with impunity.
Kelling and Wilson rejected the emerging libertarian consensus that authorities should ignore disreputable behavior — such as drug dealing and use — that allegedly hurts no one.
If such behavior occurs en masse, it destroys whole neighborhoods, they noted.
The first big test of the Broken Windows concept occurred in New York City’s subway system. The Metropolitan Transit Authority had lost control to graffiti vandals who defaced entire subway cars. New Yorkers who could not flee to private automobiles or to the suburbs cowered underground under a pall of ugliness and crime.
In 1984, the MTA announced it would eradicate subway graffiti by cleaning every car when it returned to the train yards, thus denying vandals the satisfaction of seeing their spray-painted aggressions touring the city. By 1989, the MTA declared victory. A relieved public returned to the subways in ever-higher numbers, creating an informal bulwark against subterranean crime.
Ray Kelly drew on Broken Windows insights during his first tour as New York police commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins, cracking down on the infamous “squeegee men” who “offered” to clean the car windows of drivers stuck in New York’s bridge and tunnel traffic.
In 1994, the Broken Windows theory went citywide under newly elected mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton. Most significantly, Bratton targeted subway turnstile-jumping.
The trains themselves may no longer have symbolized a city out of control, but the sight of youth defiantly breaking the rules with impunity underscored the perception that the forces of anarchy still ruled over the forces of civilization in New York. Bratton instructed the transit cops to arrest the fare-beaters, rather than passively waiting for more “serious” crime.
Many of the fare thieves were wanted precisely for those serious crimes, including rape and murder. Subway riders cheered on the arrests.
The Broken Windows concept spread beyond policing. Business-improvement districts seized on Kelling’s work to revive central business cores, wrenching trash- and graffiti-filled streets back from chaos. Without the advances in policing and urban management that Broken Windows ushered in, New York City would never have experienced its 1990s economic renaissance.
Anti-police advocates and a large part of the criminology profession denounce Broken Windows policing as racist. But it is precisely in minority communities where the calls for public-order enforcement are most fervent. The truly racist thing to do would be to ignore those calls, thus denying hard-working minority residents the freedom from fear taken for granted in more stable communities.
George Kelling’s empirically based wisdom revived the understanding that protecting public order is an essential and humane function of government — and that the viability of cities rests on respect for the law. Let us hope that New York’s criminal-justice system is not unlearning that essential lesson.
Adapted from the City Journal.
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