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broken windows thesis

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A thesis which links disorderly behaviour to fear of crime, the potential for serious crime, and to urban decay in American cities. It is often cited as an example of communitarian ideas informing public policy.

In 1982 political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George Kelling published an article under the title ‘Broken Windows’, arguing that policing in neighbourhoods should be based on a clear understanding of the connection between order-maintenance and crime prevention. In their view the best way to fight crime is to fight the disorder that precedes it. They used the image of broken windows to explain how neighbourhoods might decay into disorder and crime if no one attends to their maintenance: a broken factory window suggests to passers-by that no one is in Charge or cares; in time a few more windows are broken by rock-throwing youths; passers-by begin to think that no one cares about the whole street; soon, only the young and criminals are prepared to use the street; which then attracts prostitution, drug-dealing, and such like; until, in due course, someone is murdered. In this way, small disorders lead to larger disorders, and eventually to serious crimes.

This analysis implies that if disorderly behaviours in public places (including all forms of petty vandalism, begging, vagrancy, and so forth) are controlled then a significant drop in serious crime will follow. Wilson and Kelling therefore argue in favour of ‘community policing’ in neighbourhoods. This means many more officers on foot-patrol and fewer in police cars responding to emergency calls. Law enforcement should be a technique for crime prevention rather than a vehicle for reacting to crime.

These ideas were taken up by the New York Transit Authority, which adopted a policy of zero tolerance towards graffiti on trains, urinating in public, intimidation of commuters, and such like, and dramatically reduced the incidence of serious crime in New York City subways. Similar initiatives have also achieved notable successes in reducing crime-rates and urban decay in many other American cities. Typically these involve some mixture of Neighbourhood Watch programmes, zero tolerance of minor public disorders, a shift towards ‘community-oriented’ (preventive) and away from ‘incident-oriented’ (reactive) policing, police involvement in local youth projects, decentralization of authority to individual police officers, and community involvement in setting priorities for and collaborating with prosecutors, police, probation officers, and other criminal justice officials (see George Kelling and Catherine Coles, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in our Communities, 1996). See also criminology.

Subjects: Social sciencesSociology

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