The Broken Windows Theory of Policing

Subject: Law
Type: Argumentative Essay
Pages: 4
Word count: 1047
Topics: Crime, Public Policy

The broken windows theory of policing is related to an observation that was made by George Kelling a criminologist and James Wilson a social scientist in 1980s.  They asserted that when a building’s window is broken and remains unrepaired, there is likelihood that the other windows too will be broken. This is because it points to a society that does not care and hence it will cost nothing to break other windows.  They thus stated that where disorderly behavior remains unchecked, more serious crimes will flourish (, 2018). Thus, the theory introduced the idea that a society that prevents such petty crimes as graffiti or vandalism is likely to improve the entire community’s quality of life and it will deter bigger crimes from happening. The theory calls for low level crimes to be targeted in a bid to deter more serious crimes. 

The New York Police Department implemented the new theory of policing by incorporating is into the crime prevention methods and hence made it an integral part of the city’s law enforcement. The city employs the broken window theory in dealing with smaller crimes like vandalism and littering. For instance when an issue of graffiti arises in a subway, the city will clean it up to prevent the overall crime from rising.

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The number of stops in New York City has greatly declined over the past couple of decades thanks to the implementation of the broken windows theory of policing. Before the publication and implementation of the theory in New York, urban crime seemed uncontrollable not only in America but also around the globe. Since its implementation two decades ago, the rates of crime in the country, and especially in the New York City, significantly declined. Specifically, the rate of murder declined from 26.5 per 100,000 people in the early 1990s to just 3.3 for every 1,000 people by the year 2013. This rate was actually lower than the American national average. Although people have come up with theories in their attempt to explain the significant decline in crime rate, the New York City’s new policy against crime in conjunction with New York Police Department’s action of taking serious steps towards addressing minor crimes is in no doubt a major contributor to the declining rates of crime.  It is worth noting that during Mr. Bratton’s tenure as the head of New York’s transit police, he adopted a policy that his subordinates ought to arrest as many turnstile jumpers as possible.  There were interesting findings in the arrests:  for every seven offenders arrested, one of them was wanted by the police for other crimes, while one in every 20 people arrested had in their possession a gun, a knife or similar weapons used in serious crimes.  Owing to this action by the New York Police Department, the subway crime in New York fell by 30% within a one year period.

On his election as the mayor of New York in 1994, Rudy Gullian, who had ridden on the promise to clean up the New York City streets, thus ridding them of crime, found it necessary to appoint Bratton Head of the New York Police Department. On assuming the office, Bratton scaled up the lessons he had learnt from the subways and learnt that taking misdemeanor offences such as possession of illegal guns seriously and cracking down on them greatly reduced opportunities for crimes being perpetrated.  As a result, the city witnessed a great decline in the number of daily shootings.  Thus, it is no doubt that broken windows style of policing has achieved great success in helping the police reduce crime rate in New York.

There are some civic rights issues that have been raised by New York City’s method of policing despite the various achievements that have been associated with it. Application of the policy has the potential of abusing individuals’ rights. Police have at times been tempted to cross the line when performing their duties as they have the authority of enforcing even the smallest rules. In this regard, people have always complained that they have been harassed especially with regard to minorities and the poor with others reporting foment police brutality in their attempt to deter minor crimes (Alford, 2012). A case of study is the death of Eric Garner who is of minority origin when the police put him in a headlock in their attempt to arrest him for a minor crime. In addition, civic rights may also be abused given that one’s perception of social and physical disorder may differ from another’s. Opponents of the policy wonder what the basis used in deciding what is acceptable amount of litter or what normal behavior in a neighborhood is.  It is worth noting that people that have differing demographic backgrounds and life experiences may react to a particular situation or environment differently. As such, people’s rights have been violated in the name of ensuring social order which is a social construct as opposed to a concrete phenomenon.  Owing to the police being extremely hostile and poorly trained, their ability to distinguish between a work man and an idler teenager or a dangerous criminal is limited. The policy seems to criminalize men of color with thousands being arrested for cases where a verbal reprimand or citation may suffice.  Young men have been incarcerated for such minor crimes as jumping turnstiles, yelling at police officers, selling loose cigarettes or soliciting free MTA rides with their futures being ruined completely.  This is despite people from affluent neighborhoods rarely getting arrested for the minor offenses. 

The broken windows policing policy has in no doubt played a significant role in reducing the crime rates in the New York City. However, it has been blamed as a result of serious civic rights violations especially with regard to the minorities and the poor. It is worth noting that the policy aims at maintenance of communal integrity. However, where the minority or the poor are arbitrally arrested, harmed or killed by police for petty crimes, this is not integrity. The police response to minor crimes along racial lines can only be described as structural discrimination and hence violates human rights. Such violations have worse effects in that they destroy the civil society foundation in a manner that the minor crimes could never. 

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  1. (2018). The civil rights implications of ‘broken windows’ policing in NYC and general NYPD accountability to the public
  2. Alford, R. (2012). A broken windows theory of international corruption
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