Does the "Broken Window" theory of crime suppression, made famous in NYC, need a second look asks Professor Steve Zeidman of CUNY Law School in a New York Daily News op-ed.
Given the tremendous, mostly positive publicity it has engendered, it is surprising to many that this heralded theory of policing is a five-page essay published in The Atlantic in 1982. The article's theme is that untended minor criminal behavior leads inexorably to serious street crime. One broken window left unaddressed will soon yield a building filled with broken windows. As the authors famously wrote, "[T]he unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window."
Serious crime has decreased dramatically in New York City in the two decades that broken windows policing has been in force, yet the causal connection between that drop and huge numbers of arrests for minor transgressions is unproven to this day. It remains an open question how significant a role the arrests, as opposed to other factors like changing demographics and the relative decline of crack cocaine, played in the reduction in crime.
Consider: New Yorkers live in a far, far less violent city than we have in generations, and yet the NYPD continues to find thousands upon thousands of minor crimes to enforce.
Further, many argue that the efficacy of broken windows must be evaluated by simultaneously considering the brutal impact these arrests have on individuals, their families and their communities. Others argue that if a broken window portends an outbreak of serious crime, then the appropriate response is to actually fix the window, for instance by building more affordable housing.
Police Commissioner William Bratton is an unabashed devotee of broken windows policing, though he now prefers to call it quality of life policing. For him, actualizing the theory has translated into massive arrests for minor crimes beginning, notoriously, with so-called "squeegee men." For Bratton, there is no nuance, other explanation or cause for concern. Broken windows policing is responsible for the drop in reported crime and that end justifies its means.
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