“Broken Windows” and Broken Communities

As a participant in the robust discussions of policing strategies in the early 1990s, I was a big supporter of “community policing,” and viewed the “broken windows” theory as a corollary: anything that degraded a community’s social capital and capacity for self-defense made it more hospitable to criminal predators. But I hated the idea, which seemed a perversion of “broken windows” policing, of “zero tolerance” raids on a neighborhood wherein the cops sealed off an area and stopped everything and everybody that moved in search of petty offenses. That turned “community policing” on its head by treating citizens as residents of neighborhoods under police occupation and subject to what would inevitably be racial profiling.

But depending on where and how it was implemented, “broken windows” policing clearly did lead to wars against communities instead of wars to strengthen communities. And now, one of the co-founders of not only the “broken windows” school but one of the early proponents of community policing, George Kelling, is admitting it, per a report from Public Radio International:

Kelling believes that the “demand for order in minority communities is strong.” He adds, however, that police should be using the “broken windows” model to operate on behalf of citizens.

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

Kelling believes that under-policing of high crime areas, which is in practice what we are seeing in New York right now, is a bad idea as well. But if “broken windows” policing had not degenerated into a racialized effort to hassle people in minority communities, New York would not be facing this sort of false choice.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.