Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What is "Broken Windows Theory"?

First of all, I am hoping that this will be the first of many posts to come--soon, and hopefully not just from me, but from other critical criminologists too! 

I want to get things started again by briefly discussing the latest problem that I have been working through in my dissertation. Hopefully, it will be of interest to someone somewhere. 

First, a bit of background: My dissertation is based on more two years worth of research in which I examined, among other things, how the poorest of the urban poor are policed in an urban public space in Jersey City, New Jersey. Contrary to claims about the "containment and criminalization" of the urban poor, I found that, for the post part, the police tended to indulge the disorderly and illicit behaviors of the urban poor. Most of my dissertation consists of a critical engagement with the likes of Loic Wacquant and other scholars who, in my estimation, focus only on the most repressive aspects of the American criminal justice system, while, in the process, ignoring some important complexities, nuances, and contradictions in the system. Perhaps I'll say more about this in a later post. 

For now, though, I'd like to talk about what I'm working through at the moment.  In one of my last chapters, I discuss my finding that the space I studied manages to be a safe one despite the fact that: (a) homeless and other "street persons" consistently engage in disorderly and illicit behaviors in the space; and (b) the police tend to indulge, not repress, such behaviors. 

Initially, I thought that this finding might count as evidence against the (in)famous "Broken Windows Theory."  However, after revisiting the theory, as it was originally laid out in an Atlantic Monthly article written by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, it quickly became clear that I was operating with a faulty understanding of the theory. I begin my chapter by noting as much and then laying out the questions that I think arise in light of what Broken Windows Theory actually says, rather than according to how it has consistently been misread (assuming it has been read at all): 
How does [the space] manage to be a relatively safe [one]? When I first began thinking about this question, it occurred to me almost immediately that my findings might count as evidence against the claims of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory of crime causation. This thought, however, was based on the widely held, but not altogether correct, notion that the quintessential characteristics of the broken windows approach are highly aggressive policing tactics, such as “sweeps” of the homeless and crackdowns on the likes of squeegee men and panhandlers. Translated into theoretical terms, Broken Windows Theory seemed to be saying something along the following lines: where there is disorder in a neighborhood, serious crime will eventually follow, unless the police intervene by aggressively policing low-level crime and disorder.

To be sure, homeless sweeps and other similarly aggressive policing tactics have been carried out under the banner of Broken Windows Theory, and one of the progenitors of the theory served as an advisor to New York City’s Transit Police Department during a period in which the department developed and implemented a much more aggressive strategy for dealing with behaviors like farebeating, panhandling, and graffiti writing on the subways. There is certainly a case to be made, too, that aggressively policing disorder and low-level crimes is not inconsistent with Broken Windows Theory. However, if we take our guidance, not from how Broken Windows Theory has been interpreted by both the theory’s proponents and critics, nor from how policymakers or police officers have translated and implemented the theory over the past two decades, but on the theory’s own terms, particularly as it was originally formulated, it is clear that, while aggressive modes of repressing low-level disorder and crime might well be consistent with Broken Windows Theory, other much less aggressive modes of policing are also consistent with the theory.

Indeed, as I revisited Wilson and Kelling’s seminal article on Broken Windows Theory, I was struck, on the one hand, by how indirect or even tenuous the connection was between the theory and modes of policing that have become virtually synonymous with the theory and, on the other hand, by how closely some of their descriptions of “good policing” resembled what I had observed in [my research]. Thus, I could hardly, in good faith, conclude that my findings contradicted Broken Windows Theory.

One of the difficulties of Wilson and Kelling’s theory is that it is not entirely clear what it predicts in terms of the relationship between disorder and crime. Contrary to some interpretations of the theory, Wilson and Kelling did not say that disorder, unless aggressively policed, will always lead to crime. Rather, they were very careful to stop short of such “strong causal reasoning” (Rein and Winship 1999; Thracher 2004). Of course, though, this begs a number of important questions. Under what conditions does disorder lead to serious crime? And, perhaps more interestingly, when doesn’t disorder lead to crime? I believe that my research enables me to offer some tentative answers to at least the latter of these two questions.
To avoid making this post too long, I will save discussion of how I think my "case" of a "high disorder/low crime" space might shed some light on the potential connections between disorder and crime.

To conclude, though, I'd like to give some major props to Jock Young who, in  my view, gets Broken Windows Theory exactly right in his now-classic work The Exclusive Society. The funny thing is that, despite having recently read Exclusive Society, I had forgotten (or, perhaps more accurately, only subliminally remembered) his very nuanced treatment of Broken Windows Theory in the book.  Anyway, here is an excerpt (pp. 127-28): 
Wilson and Kelling's insight was that the control of minor offenders and disorderly behaviour which was not criminal was as important to a community as crime control. Incivilities, ‘quality of life’ crimes caused a major part of the citizens’ feeling of unease in the city. And to this absolutely spot-on insight they added two more contentious propositions. Namely, that the police who were ineffective in the control of serious crime would be easily effective against disorderly behaviour. Indeed that that was their traditional role. And that control of incivilities would, so to speak, kick-start the community out of despair and disintegration and such a revitalized community through informal controls and citizens’ vigilance would in time reverse the spiral of decay and reduce the incidence of serious crime. I do not want to enter into a critique of this philosophy; my point is that it is scarcely a programme of zero-tolerance against all crime which believes that the police are the key actors in the creation of orderly society and which views the ‘sweeping up’ of the streets as producing miraculous and immediate results. It is a more subtle theory, it has a more marginal role for the police and it situates the wellspring of social order in more fundamental parts of the social structure. Finally, it talks not of zero-tolerance but of discretion bordering on realpolitik.
One of the things that is so refreshing about Jock's analysis here is that he sees the theory for what it is really saying, regardless of whether or not he thinks the theory is right or whether or not he counts himself as a proponent of the Broken Windows "philosophy" (and, incidentally, I think that "philosophy" is a better way of describing Wilson and Kelling's argument than "theory" is).  Similarly, while I don't count necessarily count myself as a fan of the broken-window approach (for me, it depends on how it's interpreted and implemented), after taking a much closer look at the theory, I can't help but recognize the absurdity of conflating it with the notion of "zero tolerance" (as if there could ever be such a thing).

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