The Social Meaning of Broken Windows Policing

by Elizabeth Brown, PhD

One of the most significant movements in modern policing is what is often referred to as “Broken Windows” policing. The term “broken windows” comes from a short article published by two criminologists in 1982 in the magazine Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows Policing.” From these rather modest origins, an entirely new framework for policing emerged premised on police as order maintainers, often called “order maintenance policing.” The emergence of order maintenance policing was neither novel nor unprecedented, but rather a new way of framing policing practices that had always existed and that had even played a critical role in the historical emergence of policing agencies. In this article, I review the logic and tenets of “Broken Windows” policing, its impact on policing in the United States, and its typical uses. In doing so, I argue that we should expect Broken Windows to target black, brown, and poor people because of its logic and application, but also because of its appeal to racially coded perceptions of order and disorder. As I discuss below, it is not an accident that Broken Windows-type policing tactics are used to create and reinforce divisions between the haves and have-nots in US society.

When Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Windows article appeared in the late 1980s, cities and police found themselves in circumstances very different from those of previous eras. Unlike their industrial predecessors, cities were entering the period known as “deindustrialization.” During this time, union jobs declined and industrial manufacturing moved away from traditional centers of production. Further, the economic tax base of urban areas was transitioning from manufacturing and factory production to tourism and the service sector. Police, by contrast, were entering one of the most significant reform movements in their history—the move towards community policing—directly as a result of growing dissatisfaction with urban police agencies. Urban police, that had modeled themselves on the military and a professional ethos, had developed themselves as crime experts, swooping in to save society from itself. This had alienated many communities, especially those of color, because the use of targeted drag-net type tactics frequently aimed exclusively at the poor and communities of color. A series of key Supreme Court cases challenged the carte blanche often given to urban police, and extended such protections as 4th Amendment rights and the right to a lawyer to be present during police interrogations.

Wilson and Kelling’s article directly responds to this reality. It begins by discussing the results of a “foot patrol” experiment that led to moving officers from their cars to patrolling their assigned neighborhoods. This move was meant to decrease the distance between police and residents, which would hopefully also work to help police solve crime. Yet, the results of this study showed that in fact crime did not decrease. Most studies of increased policing and foot patrol showed that these tactics often have little impact on crime rates. Many would expect then that foot patrol would be considered an ineffective tool against crime and be relegated to the dustbin of history. But, the study Wilson and Kelling cite found that foot patrols did have significant other benefits—most importantly, that people believed that crime decreased. And this meant that they behaved in accordance with this belief—they hung out in public places more, concerns about security decreased, and had a more favorable view of law enforcement.

These finding are the real value of Broken Windows—not that it decreases crime, but that it changes the relationship between police and neighborhood residents. Wilson and Kelling ask, “How can a neighborhood be ‘safer’ when the crime rate has not gone down?” To this, they answer that most people fear violent crime, but there is another important source of fear: “the fear of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenager, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.”

Broken Windows—and by extension the field of order maintenance policing—then, is not about crime, but about disorder. And when it’s about disorder, Wilson and Kelling admit that really it’s about some members of society who when confronted with disorder are fearful because of the lack of control in that environment.

Fear of disorder, then, is at the heart of Broken Windows policing, and Wilson and Kelling elaborate that what leads many police to establish order in a neighborhood is not by fighting crime, but rather by regulating and even eliminating signs of disorder. The “broken window” is the metaphor for community decline, exhibited not by the reality of poverty but by the aesthetic representation of poverty—disinvested buildings, jobless youth, unkempt people. They note that in order for police to create the good order sought by neighborhood residents, much of the regulation and handling of disorder “would not withstand a legal challenge.” In short, police used to be able to “kick ass” and restore order to the community, but they are now hamstrung by legal challenges.

Given the transformation of urban economies, the need to control disorder became increasingly paramount as unemployment rose and racial exclusion remade itself. As Christian Parenti notes, “If the economic restructuring of the eighties and nineties intensified urban poverty, it also created new, gilded spaces that are increasingly threatened by poverty. This polarization of urban space and social relations has in turn required a new layer of regulation and exclusion so as to protect the new hyper-aestheticized, playground quarters of the postmodern metropolis from their flipsides of misery.” Broken Windows is a call for the modern practice of policing to foreground that fear.

This treatise, though, is also a lament for the decline of certain policing powers associated with the pre-professional era of policing. Police emerged first during this era in the mid-1800s, and largely served at the discretion of the political ward boss, introducing significant corruption and brutality to the practice of policing. Police at this time, though, knew the neighborhood and acted on foot patrol. They were not constrained by the law, and could enact policies and act in ways that sought to rid society of moral impurities not generally synonymous with crime. One such example were the “purity squads” that roamed Seattle, Washington in the early 1900s and sought to rid public space of children, women at night, and drink and sex temptations. Slave patrols in the South, and the Jim Crow police are just two other examples.

For Wilson and Kelling, these early antecedents of policing all had one thing in common: the wide discretionary power accorded individual beat officers. Indeed, what makes order good for Wilson and Kelling is that police used to be able to “kick ass.” But through legal challenges, the due process revolution, and increasing political pressure, law enforcement is no longer able to do this.

Though Wilson and Kelling’s article could have escaped without notice, it did not. It went on to influence the development of a whole host of policing mechanisms that broadly fall under the rubric of order maintenance policing. These range from relatively sporadic and situational programs such as graffiti paint outs to whole reorientations of police departments. One of the most infamous of these is the “zero tolerance” or “quality of life” policing practiced by the New York City Police Department in the 1990s. Under the direction of William Bratton, the NYPD used zero tolerance to arrest panhandlers, squeegee men, and sexual “deviants.” As a result, Times Square transformed from a place credited with providing sexual freedom and openness for a generation of gay men to what has been termed the Disneyland metropolis. This transformation, though, came at the cost of people.

In every single precinct, except one, the NYPD’s “zero tolerance policing” increased rates and complaints of police brutality. Much of this might be expected—tell a group of people that they are moral crusaders against elements of disorder and vice, give them the power of force, coercion, and violence, and then direct them to target the disorderly problem aggressively, and it would be naïve to expect anything other than what happened. Infamous and extremely brutal cases such as Amadou Diallo or Abner Louima just underscore and highlight the dark underside of Broken Windows policing. Yet these cases are just the extremes of more robust, prolific, everyday practices of aggressive enforcement—enforcement that results in such practices as “stop and frisk,” police killing of citizens for very minor property crimes, and a whole host of practices that subject the poor and communities of color to increased surveillance, intrusion, and policing.

Even further, the focus on the poor and communities of color is designed into the very logic of Broken Windows policing. Wilson and Kelling note that in order to build the robust cities of tomorrow, citizens must not fear in their daily activities and instead must be enabled to move about and consume within the city. Movement and consumption is only enabled by decreased fear for Wilson and Kelling, and thus, anything that induces fear must be removed from the urban environment.

One might say that signs of disorder spell fear for all people, and thus are irreducible to class or race dimensions. And yet, disorder is neither objectively perceived nor immune from the racial and class hierarchies that dominate US society. Instead, order is directly a part of these hierarchies, and the notion of disorder is not only a window into how fears of the other shape public policy, but also the fear of disorder is always already raced and classed.

A Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson, who for the past two decades has carried out a large-scale study of Chicago, illustrates this point most deftly. His study elucidates what he refers to as the “neighborhood effect,” or the process by which neighborhoods retain enduring characteristics—such as poverty or wealth—despite social structural transformations. Sampson notes that one of these effects is the tendency to see disorder differently depending on the racial and class circumstances of the neighborhoods. In white neighborhoods, signs that could be taken as disorderly in other neighborhoods—i.e. graffiti or abandoned cars—are not seen as signs of disorder at all. By contrast, add black and brown faces into the mix, and suddenly, respondents “see” all sorts of disorder where previously they saw none.

Other sociologists support these findings. Maria Krysan, for instance, shows that assessments of crime rates of neighborhoods are not affected by actual crime rates, but by racial compositions of the neighborhood. More white people means less crime whereas more black people means more, regardless of actual rates. Lincoln Quillian and Devah Pager show the same with assessments of real estate purchasing desirability and the presence of young black men. These studies illustrate that when Wilson and Kelling talk about disorder, they are talking directly about black, brown, and poor bodies.

Even more, when Wilson and Kelling lament the ability of police officers to “kick ass,” they mourn for a time when the subjugation of some for the perceived health and safety of others was legally sanctioned. During slavery, for example, we saw this harsh reality explicitly, where the violent oppression and killing of some was justified for the economic health and livelihood of others.

What order maintenance policing does, both in logic and application, is recreate this logic by positing that the fear that some feel when faced with the visible manifestations of city life—i.e. poverty, teens hanging out, and racial segregation—should be met with aggressive suppression unbridled by legislative regulation. Perceived disorderly folks are cast as the undesirables incapable of membership within political society and expendable to the continuation of that society.

That the people who are expendable continue to be black, brown, and poor demonstrates not only the deeply racialized and classed basis of order maintenance policing, but also that these are also tools for the continuation of the racialized and classed politics of suppression that have long made the US exemplary.