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The cracks in 'broken windows'

A crime-fighting theory that says stopping major crimes begins with stopping small ones has influenced policing strategies in Boston and elsewhere since the 1980s. But scholars are starting to question whether fixing broken windows really fixes much at all.

William Bratton, left, took his first ride as head of the Boston transit police in 1983.
William Bratton, left, took his first ride as head of the Boston transit police in 1983. (Globe Staff File Photo / George Rizer)

ON THURSDAY, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced a new initiative. The Boston Police Department, he said, will be cracking down on misdemeanor offenses, including loud parties, unleashed dogs, public drinking, and even littering. ''Today we are addressing what may sometimes appear to be smaller issues," the mayor said at a press conference, ''but for those of us familiar with the 'broken windows' theory and reality, we know that these kinds of community disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow."

Combatting such nuisances may sound like a waste of resources when serious crime is on the rise-and Boston is facing its highest murder rate in a decade. But according to the broken windows theory, fighting the seemingly minor indicators of neighborhood decay and disorder-broken windows, graffiti, even litter-helps prevent major crimes, and urban police forces like Boston's have applied the theory since the 1980s.

''We in Boston not only embraced [broken windows] back then, but we've expanded on it since," says Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole.

But while the Boston police are getting out their citation books, a series of recent academic studies has challenged the broken windows theory, opening a debate on its effectiveness-a debate the continued violence in Boston has rendered anything but academic.

The broken windows theory first came to prominence in 1982, when criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson published a lengthy article on the subject in The Atlantic Monthly. The theory, as they explained it, holds that people are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods that appear unwatched and uncared for by residents and local authorities. Criminals, Kelling said recently, are ''emboldened by the lack of social control."

The crux of Wilson and Kelling's argument was that perceptions affect reality-that the appearance of disorder begets actual disorder-and that any visual cues that a neighborhood lacks social control can make a neighborhood a breeding ground for serious crime. As Kelling and Wilson put it in The Atlantic, ''one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."

Kelling and Wilson conjured a vision of untended neighborhoods quickly reduced to crime-infested wastelands. First local boys rob a passed-out drunk on a lark; then muggers start robbing anyone who looks like he might have a few big bills in his wallet. Residents begin to view their neighborhood as unsafe, and retreat into their homes-or to the suburbs-abandoning the declining neighborhood to criminals.

To stop this downward spiral, Kelling and Wilson admonished authorities not to wait for assaults and murders, but to repair the first broken window-literally and metaphorically. They also told authorities to get tough on misdemeanors from vandalism to turnstile jumping-even on behaviors that may not be technically illegal, like loitering and panhandling.

The real-world influence of the theory can be traced, in large part, to one man: William J. Bratton. Currently the police chief of Los Angeles, he was running the Boston transit police in the early 1980s. Bratton had had contact with Kelling, with whom he now has a close relationship, but just as important was his belief in the then-unfashionable idea that a patrolman's primary responsibility was to keep order in a community rather than just respond to serious crimes after the fact.

Bratton employed the broken windows theory as part of what he calls a comprehensive policing strategy, and on his watch, crime on the T dropped by 27 percent. ''It was one of the elements," Bratton says of broken windows. ''What the officers were attempting to do was deal with those 'quality of life' offenses."

Bratton was promoted to Boston's police commissioner in 1993. It wasn't long before he attracted the attention of an ambitious New York prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani, who was running for mayor on a pledge to get serious about ''quality of life" misdemeanors like aggressive panhandling. In a 1992 speech kicking off his campaign, Giuliani quoted from Kelling and Wilson, adding his own prosecutorial gloss. Aggressive panhandlers and squeegee men were not nuisances, Giuliani said, they were criminals.

Many on the academic and political left accused Giuliani, who was running against an African-American incumbent, of using racial code words. (Virtually all squeegee men in the city were black.) Furthermore, left-wing academics argued that the criminalization of so-called quality of life offenses was the criminalization of poverty.

One of Giuliani's first moves upon being elected was to hire Bratton as police commissioner, and the two went to work putting the broken windows theory into practice. The city's crime rate plummeted through the Giuliani years and beyond. On Giuliani's watch, overall violent crime was cut in half and the murder rate went down a stunning 70 percent, silencing all but the most stubborn critics.

Recently, however, new critics have emerged and old ones have been emboldened by the rising crime rates in Boston and elsewhere. One widely read challenge comes from ''Freakonomics," the best-selling book by University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, which presents a controversial theory claiming that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s was the biggest factor in the crime drop of the 1990s. According to this hypothesis, the decline in the birth of unwanted, often poor and fatherless children in the '70s, led to a decline in the number of juvenile delinquents in the '80s and hardened criminals in the '90s. As for broken windows, Levitt and Dubner write, ''There is frighteningly little evidence that [Bratton's] strategy was the crime panacea that he and the media deemed it."

University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt and Georgetown University public policy professor Jens Ludwig agree. Harcourt and Ludwig attack broken windows using the same New York City police precinct data that Kelling believes validates the theory. The data do show a dramatic reduction of incidents in high-crime precincts, but Harcourt and Ludwig attribute this to what they call ''Newton's Law of Crime: what goes up, must come down (and what goes up the most, tends to come down the most)."

In a forthcoming paper, Harcourt and Ludwig draw on the work of criminologists who have seen the rise and fall of crime rates in the '80s and '90s as a result not of a new type of policing, but of the crack epidemic. When crack first hit the market in the 1980s, it was a lucrative business to be in (and worth the fight for turf), but as it became more available, the price dropped dramatically, making dealers think twice about risking their lives to make ever-lower profits, and reducing the incidence of violent crime.

Harcourt and Ludwig also use the results of a Department of Housing and Urban Development program to suggest that neighborhood disorder has no effect on criminality. In the HUD program, public housing tenants from cities including New York and Boston were moved from inner-city projects to safer, more orderly neighborhoods. Contrary to what broken windows would suggest, there was no decrease in criminality among the relocated public-housing tenants: They continued to offend at the same rates in their new, more orderly neighborhoods as they did in their disorderly ones.

''There's no good evidence that disorder causes crime [or] that broken windows policing reduces serious crime in a neighborhood," Harcourt says.

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson and University of Michigan education professor Stephen Raudenbush argue that even if you agree with Kelling and Wilson that disorder begets crime, it doesn't mean there's anything the police can do about it. Their research, they believe, shows that perceptions of a neighborhood aren't so much determined by things like graffiti as they are by race.

In their study, researchers toured a set of Chicago neighborhoods in an SUV and counted, literally, all the physical signs of decay. They then compared this data with interviews of residents about how disordered they believed their neighborhoods to be. They found that the actual level of physical disorder-the number of boarded-up buildings, for example-wasn't the most important factor in making people think their neighborhood was disordered: It was the number of black, and to a lesser extent Latino, neighbors. And it wasn't just white residents who felt this way-black and Latino residents exhibited the same racial bias.

Sampson and Raudenbush attribute these responses to what some social theorists have called ''implicit bias": a tendency of both whites and minorities to subconsciously associate minorities with undesirable traits like criminality. If race rather than the reality of a neighborhood's condition is what really shapes perceptions of disorder, ''it may not make any difference whether someone addresses the so-called broken windows," Sampson says.

In terms of everyday police work, Sampson notes there's plenty cops can do to deter serious crime but changing conceptions of race probably isn't among them.

William Bratton is clearly angered by the second-guessing of broken windows, and seems to see it as a personal affront. When it comes to crime reduction, he says, ''few are as good at it as I am." He maintains that broken windows is ''a revolutionary idea," and that it remains an important part of a successful policing strategy.

But Bratton's indignation runs deeper than that. He sees an anticop bias at work in the research of many of the academic criminologists attacking broken windows, and it's true that left-leaning academics have been more eager to pick apart broken windows than the more progressive elements of Bratton's strategy, like targeting illegal guns.

Kelling conceded that the new ideas about race and perceived disorder sounded plausible, but he cited what he saw as an important methodological flaw in the study by Sampson and Raudenbush (two of his longtime critics): Their neighborhood surveys of physical signs of disorder, Kelling pointed out, took place during daylight hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ''That's like looking for your car keys under a lamppost, not because you lost them there, but because the light is good," Kelling says.

Kelling remains confident that when all the studies shake out, he'll be the last academic standing. And despite the new research, the authorities in Boston remain committed to broken windows policing. Like Bratton, Police Commissioner O'Toole stresses that broken windows is just one element of a balanced crime-reduction policy. But she also calls herself ''a George Kelling disciple." Indeed, O'Toole held talks with Kelling last October about doing consulting work with the department, though they didn't lead to a deal.

''We're not going to abandon our broken windows strategy," O'Toole says, ''It's worked for us all along, and it will continue to work for us."

Daniel Brook is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Harper's, Dissent, and Legal Affairs.

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