[Updated] Why Police (and Communities) Need 'Broken Windows'


Michael D. White

The merger of “broken windows” policing with the widespread use of Stop, Question, Frisk (SQF) by the New York Police Department (NYPD) over the last 20 years has produced serious consequences—and for many critics, these tactics have become “dirty words.”

Two years ago, in Floyd v. City of New York, a federal court concluded that the combined strategy had violated the constitutional rights of thousands of mostly minority New York City residents; resulting in significant physical, emotional and psychological harm to affected community members; and compromised police legitimacy.

Experts have raised questions about whether the experience in New York and other places demonstrates that neither strategy has a place in 21st-century policing.

There are clearly risks and challenges associated with each strategy, especially when used together. But we believe, in fact, that both strategies should play a role in 21st-century policing, as long as they are governed by strong internal oversight and community input.

We believe, in fact, that both strategies should play a role in 21st-century policing, as long as they are governed by strong internal oversight and community input.

Broken Windows and 21st Century Policing

In their landmark 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling drew a crucial link between disorder and crime. They described how this link impacts the social fabric of a neighborhood. Their argument centers on the proverbial broken window, which, if left un-repaired, sends a message that no one cares.

In practical terms, the broken window is a metaphor for disorder and indicates that there is a breakdown in the informal social controls that govern behavior in the neighborhood. The unrepaired broken window sends a message to would-be offenders that the community is not “on guard,” which will increase disorder and spark a downward spiral of deterioration—leading eventually to fear and withdrawal among residents and making the area more vulnerable to criminal activity.

Wilson and Kelling argued that because of this link between disorder, social cohesion, and crime, police should focus their efforts on disorder and quality-of-life issues in neighborhoods, and they should engage with the community in their efforts.

More recently, some scholars and practitioners have equated broken-windows policing with “zero-tolerance” policing, though Kelling and other proponents strongly oppose the connection.

Zero tolerance is distinctive from broken windows in several ways. First, there is no partnership between the community and the police in zero-tolerance policing. Under a pure broken-windows approach, the citizens are involved and, in fact, police seek to increase community engagement.

Second, in the zero-tolerance model, there is no emphasis on identifying the underlying conditions of problems or engaging in any sort of problem-solving process. By contrast, under broken windows, police target physical and social disorder because they are the underlying conditions that cause problems. Last, zero-tolerance policing does not involve any sort of innovation. A pure version of broken-windows policing would involve problem-solving, as well as aspects of community-oriented and “hot spots” policing. In sum, there are clear conceptual distinctions between broken windows policing and zero-tolerance policing.

But there is also evidence to suggest that those conceptual distinctions can disappear in practice. The past two decades in New York City clearly demonstrate this point. But does the NYPD's experience mean that broken windows should be abandoned? And does the scholarly debate over the disorder/crime connection mean that broken windows has no merit?

We argue the answer to both questions is no.

Disorder matters to citizens. It generates fear and reduces their quality of life. Disorder also matters to police officers. Moreover, reducing disorder is a central feature of several other empirically supported police strategies, such as situational crime prevention and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED).

We believe that the broken-windows strategy can (and should) play an important role in 21st-century policing. It can be combined with community engagement, crime analysis, and problem solving. Clearly, police vigilance is required to ensure that such a strategy does not devolve into zero-tolerance policing, and that citizens remain engaged in –and not alienated by– the effort.

SQF and 21st-Century Policing

There is a similar disconnect between SQF (or “Terry stops”) in principle and in practice. On one hand, SQF is constitutionally permissible and is grounded in a historical and legal tradition dating back hundreds of years. A police officer's authority to stop and question a suspicious person has been affirmed by a host of court cases and federal law, both before and after the ruling in Terry v. Ohio in 1968.On the other hand, SQF in practice has, in many ways, become synonymous with racial profiling, defined by gross overuse and misuse of the strategy and violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of community members.

The SQF problem is, at its core, a story of abused police discretion.

The decision by a police officer to initiate a Terry stop is an exercise in discretion. There is a long history of police problems with discretion, ranging from use of deadly force and automobile pursuits to arrest decisions in domestic violence calls. The experiences in New York City and elsewhere illustrate that unjust, unconstitutional Terry stops represent another in a long line of failures by police departments to properly guide and control their officers' use of discretion.

The question is whether SQF has a proper place in 21st-century policing.

We believe it does, with several critically important stipulations. First, SQF must be used justly, meaning that all stops meet constitutional standards regarding reasonable suspicion. Second, there is a large body of research examining police discretion, abuses of that discretion, and how best to properly control that discretion. This body of research provides a roadmap for ensuring fair, constitutional, and appropriate use of SQF. This framework is centered on effective hiring practices, proper training, clear administrative guidance, and sufficient supervisory oversight.

Third, SQF should be assessed through a procedural justice lens. Procedural justice is defined as fair treatment of individuals by police in a manner characterized by community participation (i.e., being given the opportunity to state one's case), fairness and neutrality, dignity and respect, and demonstration of trustworthy motives.

During a Terry stop, was a community member treated with dignity and respect? Was the person given a voice? Was the officer transparent and neutral? Did the officer convey trustworthy motives? Procedurally just treatment of community members is perhaps the most viable mechanism for generating police legitimacy, and the framework represents a barometer by which to measure the impact and consequences of SQF practices.

Finally, use of SQF should be weighed against individuals' perceptions of the strategy. Extensive use of SQF, even if done within constitutionally required standards, may have deleterious consequences for police relations with community members, particularly in minority communities. Quite simply, there are limits to what people will tolerate with regard to aggressive use of SQF. Police need to understand and honor these limits.

If these stipulations are met, Terry stops can serve as a valuable tool in a police department's repertoire of crime-control strategies, and the practice can be integrated with the prevailing strategies employed in 21st-century policing—including problem-oriented policing, community-oriented policing, hot spots policing, and pulling levers/focused deterrence.

Nevertheless, because we are humans working in a flawed human system, there will be mistakes made in the application of SQF. If those mistakes are rare (few in number) and random (if they do not affect one group of people more than another), and if we reflect on mistakes made and take swift corrective action, then we can accept this tactic in good conscience.

Under certain conditions, primarily under careful police performance management and under a procedural justice rubric, broken windows and SQF policing practices can and should have their place in 21st-century policing.

To ignore them or cast them aside would ignore decades of police research and practice, and would remove two important tools at a police agency's disposal for crime reduction and prevention.

It is better, we suggest, to keep these tools at the ready, and (with sound management practices, community engagement, and ongoing evaluation research) to carefully integrate them into modern police practices.

Editor's Note: The earlier published version of this essay has been revised in response to a complaint that the authors mis-stated the views of Cynthia Lum and Daniel S. Nagin. The Viewpoint authors say they based their interpretation on what Lum and Nagin wrote in a June 24 TCR essay. They accept that it is not consistent with the clearly articulated conclusion found in the scholars’ original paper, on which the June 24 op ed was based.

Portions of this essay were drawn from White, Michael D. and Fradella, Henry F. (forthcoming), Pat Down: Examining the Role of Stop, Question, and Frisk Practices in American Policing (New York: New York University Press). For additional references and further reading, please click HERE.

Michael D. White is a professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, and Associate Director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety. Henry F. Fradella is a professor and Associate Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. James R. “Chip” Coldren, Jr. is the Managing Director for Justice Programs at CNA, a nonprofit research and solutions organization in Arlington, VA; he is on leave from the Criminal Justice Program at Governors State University in Illinois. They welcome readers' comments.

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