Community Policing Nugget

Broken Windows and Community Policing

Broken Window The notion of broken windows has provided important insights and innovation to the field of policing. At times, however, these ideas have been misunderstood, misapplied, and often viewed outside the context of community policing. Broken windows is based on the notion that signs of incivility, like broken windows, signify that nobody cares, which leads to greater fear of crime and a reduction of community efficacy, which in turn can lead to more serious crimes and greater signs of incivility, repeating the cycle into a potential spiral of decay. For police, the insight of broken windows is that they are called on to address minor quality-of-life offenses and incidents of social disorder to prevent more serious crime, and that they must take specific steps to increase the capacity of communities to exert informal social control. Just as many have inaccurately reduced community policing to community relations, others have incorrectly reduced broken windows to merely zero tolerance or order enforcement policies, with little regard for community concerns or outcomes. In fact, broken windows advocates for the careful implementation of these specific police tactics so that individual rights and community interests are respected. In addition, broken windows stresses the importance of including communities in the change process, with the primary goal being the development of informal social control mechanisms within the communities in question and not merely increased enforcement of minor offenses.

Later articulations of broken windows place it squarely within the context of community policing and attempt to address some of the legal and moral implication of its adoption. As Sousa and Kelling (2006:90) state, “we believe that order maintenance should represent a policy option in support of police and community efforts to be implemented as problem-analysis and problem-solving dictates.” An application of a one- size-fits-all order maintenance program is unlikely to have universally positive effects on all of the various crimes and serious problems confronted by police departments and is not advocated for by broken-windows theory. Rather, from the perspective of community policing, broken windows represents an important potential response to crime and disorder problems that may or may not be dictated through problem-solving processes and broken-windows-style interventions should be conducted in partnership with community stakeholders.

Broken windows is more narrow in scope than the overarching community policing philosophy and fits well within the community policing context. For example, unlike the community policing philosophy, broken windows does not attempt to identify specific organizational changes in law enforcement agencies that are necessary to institutionalize these types of police interventions. Situating broken windows within the broader community policing philosophy can help to advance the organizational changes necessary to make broken windows interventions (when they are called for through careful analysis) successful and sustainable. For example, broken windows can benefit from community policing’s focus on hiring different kinds of officers (who pay attention to disorder and have skills in community capacity building), building stronger analytical functions to support proper analysis, and making specific efforts to engage communities and increase trust to facilitate order-maintenance interventions.

When broken windows is correctly understood within a broader community policing philosophy, improper implementation of its central tenets through such things as ignoring community concerns, applying a zero tolerance one-size-fits-all approach to minor offenses, and conducting cursory or no analysis of problems, are less likely to occur. Appreciating the true scope of broken windows policing concepts within the context of community policing will enable these innovations to flourish and be most effective.

Sousa, W.H. & Kelling, G.L. (2006). Of “broken windows,” criminology, and criminal justice. In D. Weisburd & A. A. Braga (Eds.), Police Innovation: Contrasting Perspectives (pp.77-97). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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