Why the Broken Windows Theory of Policing Has Failed

Between the years of 2010 and 2015, the New York police issued over 1.8 million summonses for minor offenses such as public urination, graffiti, drinking alcohol, possession of marijuana, or disorderly conduct. A dog bite attorney stipulates the citations were issued under the 1980s-era theory, named the Broken Windows policy, which stipulates that if low-level offenses are sanctioned, more serious crimes can be prevented. But instead of improving the quality of life, as promised by the theory’s developer, George Kelling, the Broken Windows policy has become over-aggressive and managed to create even more problems.

The implementation of the policy took a dangerous turn during the last years. The relationship between law enforcement and minorities has fractured, and the trust level in the police department has very much decreased.

Today, authorities are in the position to re-strategize their approach regarding the Broken Windows policy, but the truth is that there is no quick fix in recreating a confidence-based relationship between a violent perceived police institution and some already traumatized communities.

The Wrong Use of the Broken Windows Policy

Kelling himself declared that the Broken Windows policy is misused and misapplied. When he introduced the theory in 1982, he based its arguments on the findings that foot patrols in the city of Newark were improving the relationship between law enforcement and black residents, thus reducing their fear of crimes and assaults.

Nowadays, people are more afraid of the police interference in their communities, as each minor offense is regarded as a big aggression, that needs to be punished. Tragedy cases have not helped the issue. In 2014, the police’ chokehold killed Eric Garner in an attempt to summon him because he was selling loose cigarettes.

George Kelling still believes that the Broken Windows theory is not broken, it just needs to be correctly implemented. He claims that the theory shouldn’t be taken as a strategy by default, but as a tactic in a broader community policy. The problem that led to the current situation is the lack of training and guidelines that should have been enforced before giving officers the free will in exercising their powers.

The Run for Many Small Arrests to the Expense of Catching Real Criminals

The fact is that the monitoring and admonition of all small offenses have diminished the interest of the population in collaborating with the police for the investigation of more serious crimes. And, truly, the system has contributed to the degradation of the relationship between the law enforcement and the communities.

Police officers are rewarded with career incentives for the number of summons and arrests they make, rather than for the solving of fewer, but more complex cases. The run for the numbers made older adults receive many citations, even though they are not considered able to commit serious crimes.

Why? Older people are easy targets. Also, more fines and more payments for courts are extremely valuable for the local government’s budgets.

However, there are still people believing that community policing helps improve the general impression of locals towards the safety of the place. The bigger the number of arrests, the stronger the feeling of safety.

The perception is, however, a tricky one. A feeling of safety doesn’t necessarily represent the reality. There is no proven data that the implementation of the Broken Windows policy helped reduce the number of crimes. On the contrary, sociologists demonstrated that there isn’t a strong cause-effect relationship. In other words, there is no proof that condemning these small misdemeanors helps decline the felony crimes rate.

Also, there are other factors that show that the current implementation of the Broken Windows policy degenerates the wellbeing and safety of the communities. Aggressive enforcement of the law in non-offensive crimes has side effects that are turning into local wars. Such cases include police shootings, civil protest, violent confrontations, which lead to nothing but chaos and fear.

Also, incarcerating people with low-level misdemeanors, together with serious criminals, actually makes them more likely to commit bigger infractions.

What Comes Next?

The population of the US has already begun taking action against police abuse. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is the most vocal in asking for an end to the criminalization of minor offenses.

The need for a properly formulated law is bigger than ever. Whether the Broken Windows theory remains active or not, the police should embrace a more widespread notion about community policing and refrain from targeting the population they must serve and protect.