Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Broken Windows Theory Revisted

A recent story on The Takeaway caught my attention. It features George Kelling revisiting his controversial "Broken Windows" theory more than three decades after he first coined the term.

"Architect of 'Broken Windows' Defends His Theory"

Source: The Atlantic

This was of interest because in Tent City Urbanism I use the "Broken Windows" to frame the conflict of "controlling and reclaiming space" that occurs between municipalities and informal tent cities organized by the homeless. Here's an excerpt from the book:

"The theory suggests a strict enforcement of “quality of life crimes”
such as panhandling, loitering, and public intoxication or urination—
with the idea that these acts infringe on the quality of life for others in
the city. The phrase is quite ironic since many of these crimes are actually
a consequence of the quality of life of the offender. In the past, these
minor acts had been commonly overlooked in urban areas in order to
concentrate policing efforts on more severe crimes. However, the broken
windows theory asserts that it is in fact these minor crimes that lead
criminals to believe they can get away with much more serious crimes
like rape, murder, and theft. So by eliminating petty crimes, a city could
in turn prevent more violent crimes. The widespread acceptance of this
premise marks a drastic shift from 'servicing' toward 'policing' as a
method for managing the issue of homelessness...

...the endorsement of the broken windows theory suggests that
these informal [tent city] settlements are robbing a certain degree of 
quality of life from the surrounding, housed community. Furthermore, 
the settlements thwart the efforts by formal design to establish predictable
behavior. As a result, laws and strategies have been adopted to disrupt
these acts of necessity, exiling those without a right to space in the city
to an itinerant lifestyle.

However, the kind of informal tent community that I am describing
actually returns some quality of life to the population within, and by
applying the same logic behind the broken windows theory positively,
this benefits the surrounding population as well. Simply allowing for a
legal place to reside—even with the most meager provisions of shelter—
reduces negative, external impacts on the city."

This last piece—that it can reduce negative impacts on the city—was recently supported by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray:

“Permitted encampments are not, in my view, a long-term strategy to end homelessness,” Murray said in announcing the measure. “But planned, organized encampments have less impact on our neighborhoods and provide a safer environment than what we see on our streets today.” 

But back to Broken Windows, my perspective of the theory was shaped by the social policy that has since transpired from this ideology. So it was quite interesting to hear Kelling's contemporary take on what has become a controversial approach. He defends his theory but also emphasizes that there is much more to consider when applying it to the actual practice of law enforcement...

“We were fearful of [negative consequences] from the very beginning,” he says. “The history of the use of loitering laws and vagrancy laws is a very sad history. It was used during the post-Civil War period and into the 20th century to keep many African-Americans in virtual slavery. We understood that it had enormous potential for abuse.”

When grappling with questions of justice and equity, the authors wrote, “How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?”

“We were raising these issues out of concern that, as ‘broken windows’ ideas worked their way into policy, that it had to be done with considerable concern for how discretion was used and that it was used appropriately,” says Kelling. “We expected even then that it was a powerful tool, and like many other powerful tools, that it had capacity for abuse and misuse.”

“For me, ‘broken windows’ has always been... a tactic under community policing,” he says. “Police operate on behalf of citizens. They have to work with citizens.”

Kelling says that the consequences will be great if police departments solely work in the name of getting more arrests or driving crime down.


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