How to Actually Fix a Broken Window

To learn more about Broken Windows policing, check out Nowhere to Go: The Impacts of City Ordinances Criminalizing Homelessness, by Donald Saelinger, available on Westlaw and LexisNexis.

by Kimberly Kidani

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In 1982, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote an article entitled Broken Windows, which purported to offer a policing strategy that would help police to serve the needs of communities.[1] This strategy empowered officers to focus on “order maintenance.”[2] The authors based the strategy outlined in Broken Windows on the premise that that crime and disorder are linked, and therefore increasing order through greater police presence in neighborhoods would prevent crime and make residents feel safer. In theory, this strategy would empower officers to restore a community through the policing of low-level offenses.[3] In practice, “broken windows” policing is an antiquated attack on the poor that the criminal justice system needs to replace with real solutions. 

Although The Atlantic published Broken Windows over thirty-five years ago, the article still has a large influence over how and what we police today. For example, New York City’s adoption of “broken windows” policing evolved into “zero tolerance” policing—strictly enforcing low-level offenses—which in turn motivated the city’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policies.[4] Attorney General Jeff Sessions has explicitly encouraged broken windows policing.[5] He has followed through on this proclamation in his reforms of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) operations and initiatives. For instance, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) no longer investigates and reports on problems within police departments on a voluntary basis. Instead, Sessions is encouraging “proactive policing” strategies—those that attempt to seek out and stop crime before it happens, like stop-and-frisk and zero tolerance policing—which many people associate with broken windows tactics.[6] However, although some supporters of Broken Windows credit this strategy with decreases in crime since the 1990s, other changes since then—including economic development and demographic shifts—make it impossible to definitively determine how effective Broken Windows is at reducing crime.[7] Regardless of its efficacy, this policing strategy resonates with many people in the community: A 2015 Quinnipiac poll indicated that a majority of New York City voters support broken windows policing.[8]

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