What Broken Windows Theory Can Teach Us Now

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American cities have experienced some very prominent signs of disorder since the pandemic that don’t show up in crime data: homeless encampments, people in visible mental distress, public drug use, deranged driving, smoking on trains, turnstile hopping, rats, shuttered storefronts, empty streets. Rightly or wrongly, these elements of the urban landscape send signals of a society in decline that are more powerful than arcane debates about shoplifting data. And we’ve decided to group all this social breakdown in with the homicide surge under the umbrella of crime, a categorization that is sometimes inaccurate (homelessness isn’t a crime) and mostly counterproductive (police don’t build homes).

This disjointed relationship between violent crime, civic disorder, and public concern isn’t new. In fact, it’s at the core of the theory that has shaped American policing for much of the past two generations.

That a breakdown in everyday social norms might make people irrationally concerned for their safety was the thesis of a famous 1982 essay in the Atlantic, “Broken Windows,” by the criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. Kelling later honed his pitch for what became known as the “broken windows” policing strategy: cracking down on “grinding, day-to-day incivilities and minor street offenses that erode the quality of urban life, make people afraid, and create the milieu within which serious crime flourishes.”

There was a sleight of hand in that set of three: Did “incivilities” really create a milieu for serious crime? Or merely make people afraid?

To take the original metaphor, if one broken window leads to more broken windows, why not hire a rapid-response team of glassworkers? Seen through this lens, investments like safe injection sites and mental health clinics are far more likely to make an impact on the sense of public order than ever-present squad cars flashing red and blue.

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