AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
As news of violence in Ukraine has dominated the headlines in recent days, American cities are also witnessing horrific acts of violence – not from a foreign military, but from criminals empowered by politicians. and soft-on-crime Democrat movements like “Defund the Police.” After murder and burglary rates in many major U.S. cities hit all-time highs last year, many city leaders are desperate to quell the violence and unrest, but rather than sweeping progressive visions of “reform of criminal justice,” policymakers might be better off looking at successful strategies from the last time crime rose in the United States.
One such strategy was sketched out in a seemingly innocuous article in Atlantic in March 1982 – 40 years ago this month – entitled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety”. Unbeknownst to the authors, this article would become one of the most controversial, misunderstood, calamitous, but ultimately successful theories on public safety in recent history. Proponents say it was the theory that saved New York City, while critics say it unfairly targeted millions of economically disadvantaged Americans. Yet almost all of these criticisms are noticeably divorced from what the authors of the “broken windows” approach to policing actually advocated.
The article was written by 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 did not create the “broken window theory” themselves. 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 low-income Bronx, which appeared abandoned. Within a day, the vehicle in the Bronx was vandalized, stripped of parts and destroyed. The vehicle in Palo Alto remained intact for nearly a week until Zimbardo smashed part of it with a hammer. Within a day, the car was destroyed in the same way. He went on to hypothesize that “vandalism can occur anywhere once community barriers – feelings of mutual respect and obligations of civility – are lowered by actions that seem to signal that ‘nobody is getting away’. cares “”.
Wilson and Kelling would later expand on Zimbardo’s work, adding that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked in some kind of sequence of development”. When something falls into a state of disrepair and disarray, according to their argument, other objects around that original something quickly follow: “if a window in a building is broken and not repaired, all other windows will soon be broken. ” It’s important to note that “this is as true in upscale neighborhoods as it is in run-down areas…an 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 it, “A property is abandoned, weeds grow, a window is broken. The adults stop scolding the rambunctious children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families are moving, single adults are moving in. Teenagers gather in front of the convenience store. The merchant asks them to move; They refuse. Fights occur. Waste accumulates. Then, as families abandon an area and residents stop caring, crime sets in.
Liberals past and present have been quick to assert that the “broken windows” theory is an unfair criticism of poor and minority communities. They claim that he portrays all disadvantaged individuals as criminals.
Contrary to this claim, however, Wilson and Kelling do not argue that this breakdown by itself leads to spikes in violent crime. Rather, crime will take hold because people will lose their connection to each other and to 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 breaks down; 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 American cities today, Wilson and Kelling offer two fundamental solutions to these problems. The first is aggressive campaigns for public cleanliness and the upkeep of the city. By keeping communities clean and windows intact, leaders can safeguard the collective health of the community.
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 sense of public safety in a community. The more people feel safe to engage with their community, the more people will actually engage with their community, thereby protecting and nurturing the social fabric.
The second benefit is that beat cops are effective in confronting and deterring “low level” criminal activity. While that doesn’t mean cops have to stop anyone loitering, strolling, or skateboarding where they shouldn’t, it does mean cops can “enforce rules about smoking, drinking, disorderly behavior , etc The need for execution involves nothing more than the deportation of the offender.
When cops are present and visible, they can deter this behavior before it turns into more brazen and violent criminal acts. The authors of “Broken Windows” admit that the highest duty of all police officers is to be “crime fighters” and to “respond to calls”. Yet they maintain that it is equally crucial for the police to protect communities: “public drunkenness, street prostitution and pornographic exhibitions can destroy a community faster than any professional burglary team”.
Forty years later, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have confirmed the broken windows argument. As a result of government-mandated shutdowns, millions of Americans say they feel “alienated” from their fellow citizens and feel the social fabric of their local communities has completely crumbled. In several cities, homeless encampments have overtaken large parts of public squares, parks and even beaches. Many of the city’s district attorneys have pledged not to prosecute crimes they consider “victimless,” including armed robbery, prostitution and drug use. Democratic “open borders” policies also allowed career criminals who crossed the southern border illegally to stay in the United States rather than be deported. Finally, the “Defund the Police” movement has directly led to personnel issues for many police departments. All of these factors have likely contributed to the surge in violent crime currently underway in American cities.
For 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 doctors now recognize the importance of promoting health rather than just treating disease, the police – and all of us – must recognize the importance of maintaining intact communities without broken windows.”
After all, it is the people who actually live in crime-ridden communities – not the left-wing activists who occupy them at every opportunity – who have the most to lose from rampant crime. Rather than implementing woke social policies or slashing police budgets, progressive politicians might be better served by instead focusing on traditional notions of what community means and taking small but vital steps. to make America’s cities cleaner and safer.
Andrew Abbott is the pseudonym of a writer and public affairs consultant with more than a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.
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