Monday, March 5, 2012

Of Broken Windows, Community Policing And Crime Reduction

Criminology is not a field that you get into if you are seeking fame and recognition. In fact, most people would be hard pressed to name a social scientist who made a contribution to the field or even to name a particularly important theory. Probably the closest to rock star status you will find in the field was James Q. Wilson who along with George Kelling authored the "Broken Windows" theory. Professor Wilson passed away at age 80 last week.

Peter Moskos, who is interesting enough in his own right, wrote a great piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that highlighted the contribution Professor Wilson made to the field.

The goal of Broken Windows policing is to allow a neighborhood to police itself and reduce crime. The role of police is to reduce fear through foot patrol, maintaining order, and the judicious use of officers' discretion. As Wilson and Kelling ask, "How can the police strengthen the informal social-control mechanisms of natural communities in order to minimize fear in public places?" The foundation of Broken Windows is neither conservative nor liberal; it is certainly not "zero tolerance" (which remains the antithesis of Broken Windows, despite what somewhat intellectually dishonest critics often say). In truth, Broken Windows rests primarily on little more than the stout shoulders of Jane Jacobs's urban concepts of eyes on the street, diversity of public use, and identifying and encouraging what makes a neighborhood work. The goal, and this is Jacobs's word, is to keep the "barbarians" from winning.

As a criminological theory, Broken Windows came from left field. And yet when so many were saying crime couldn't go down, wouldn't go down, practitioners who liked Broken Windows got their hands dirty and, guess what, crime went down. While one must never assume that correlation equals causation, if it wasn't the latter, then a few very chosen people have an amazing ability to be in the right place at the right time. Regardless of the fundamental efficacy of Broken Windows, the concept at the least got police back in the crime-prevention game. That was a seismic shift, nothing short of a law-enforcement Scientific Revolution.

Broken Windows policing, the idea that the police and the community work together to solve the problems facing the community is or should be the foundation of every police agency's strategy. Given the number of stories about Professor Wilson's legacy in major news outlets this weekend, Wilson's legacy is hugely important.

What is your agency doing to "get your hands dirty" with "broken windows" policing?

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