AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
While news of the violence in Ukraine has dominated headlines in recent days, America’s own cities are also witnessing horrifying acts of violence – not from a foreign military, but from criminals empowered by Democrat soft-on-crime policies and movements like “Defund the Police.” After murder rates and burglaries in many major American cities reached all-time highs last year, many city leaders are desperate for anything to quell the violence and unrest. But rather than radical progressive visions of “criminal justice reform,” policymakers may be better off looking at successful strategies from the last time crime spiked in the United States.
One such strategy was outlined in a seemingly innocuous article in The Atlantic in March of 1982 – 40 years ago this month – entitled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Unbeknownst to the authors, that piece would become one of the most divisive, misunderstood, calamitous, but ultimately successful theories on public safety in recent history. Proponents assert that it’s the theory that saved New York City, while detractors claim it unfairly targeted millions of economically disadvantaged Americans. Yet almost all of these critiques are noticeably divorced from what the authors of the “broken windows” approach to policing were actually arguing for.
The piece was authored by the social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Both were academics, but Wilson would later significantly influence public policy. Contrary to popular belief, however, they themselves did not actually create the “broken window theory.” The theory was first proposed and tested by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo.
In 1969, Zimbardo placed identical cars on the street, one in high-income Palo Alto and the other in the lower-income Bronx, that appeared to be abandoned. Within one day, the vehicle in the Bronx was vandalized, stripped of parts, and destroyed. The vehicle in Palo Alto was untouched for almost a week until Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Within a day, the car was similarly destroyed. He then theorized that “vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that ‘no one cares.’”
Wilson and Kelling would later expand on Zimbardo’s work, adding that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked in a kind of developmental sequence.” When something falls into a state of disrepair and disorder, their argument goes, the other objects around that original something soon follow: “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” Importantly, “this is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones…one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”
This situation in turn leads to a general degradation of the community as a whole. As Wilson and Kelling describe, “a piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become rowdier. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates.” Then, as families abandon an area and residents stop caring, crime moves in.
Liberals then and now were quick to assert that the “broken windows” theory is an unfair critique of poor and minority communities. They claim that it paints all disadvantaged individuals as criminals.
Contrary to this assertion, however, Wilson and Kelling do not argue that this decay in and of itself leads to violent crime spikes. Rather, crime will move in because people lose their connection to one another and the neighborhood as a whole. Their argument is not that people who already live in a certain area turn to crime once the social fabric decays; it is that a “criminal invasion” is more likely to occur in areas where the social fabric has deteriorated.
Importantly, and immediately relevant to the situation in many of America’s cities today, Wilson and Kelling propose two fundamental solutions to these problems. The first is aggressive campaigns for public cleanliness and city maintenance. By keeping communities clean, and windows unbroken, leaders can preserve the community’s collective health.
The second is a reinvigoration of the “walking beat” cop. The benefit of cops regularly patrolling certain areas is twofold. The first is the well-documented effect they have on the feeling of public safety in a community. The safer people feel to engage in their community, the more people will actually engage in their community, thus protecting and nourishing the social fabric.
The second advantage is that beat cops are effective at confronting and deterring “low-level” criminal activity. While this doesn’t mean that cops should arrest anyone who loiters, jaywalks, or rides a skateboard where they shouldn’t, it does mean that cops can “enforce rules about smoking, drinking, disorderly conduct, and the like. The enforcement need involves nothing more than ejecting the offender.”
When cops are present and visible, they can deter this behavior before it devolves into more brazen and violent criminal acts. The “broken windows” authors concede that the highest duty of all police is to be “crime-fighters” and “responding to calls.” Still, they maintain it is equally crucial for police to protect communities: “public drunkenness, street prostitution, and pornographic displays can destroy a community more quickly than any team of professional burglars.”
Forty years later, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have vindicated the broken windows argument. As a result of the government-mandated lockdowns, millions of Americans say they feel “alienated” from their fellow citizens and feel the social fabric of their local communities has completely collapsed. In multiple cities, homeless encampments have overtaken large parts of public squares, parks, and even beaches. Many city District Attorneys have pledged not to prosecute crimes they consider “victimless,” including armed robbery, prostitution, and drug use. Democrat “open borders” policies have also allowed career criminals who crossed the southern border illegally to remain in the United States rather than being deported. Lastly, the “Defund the Police” movement has directly led to staffing issues for many police departments. All of these factors likely contributed to the spike in violent crime currently underway in America’s cities.
To Wilson and Kelling, “Broken Windows Law Enforcement” asserts that police, local governments, and local citizens should work to protect communities as much as they work to protect individuals. That, “just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.”
After all, it is the people who actually live in crime-ridden communities – and not the left-wing activists who occupy them whenever the opportunity is ripe – who have the most to lose from rampant crime. Rather than implementing woke social policies or gutting police budgets, perhaps progressive politicians would be better served by focusing instead on traditional notions of what community means, and taking small but vital steps to make America’s cities cleaner, safer places to live.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.