Analysis of Broken Windows

Table of Content

Wilson and Kelling’s article “Broken Windows” is an interesting take on crime prevention and the psychology surrounding it. There take on crime prevention’s strays from the idea of police allocation based on crime rate and the use of foot patrol versus the use of squad car patrol. The thesis offered by Wilson and Kelling in the article “Broken Windows” is that “we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals” (Wilson 15).

Wilson and Kelling offer many suggestions on how to prevent crime and how to deal with it when it happens. Their analogy using broken windows is a good example of a way to prevent crime. “The sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility are lowered by actions that seem to signal that no one cares” (Wilson 6). They determine that if it appears as though no one cares then crime similar in nature will occurs much more frequently and to a greater extent. An example of that idea evolving graffiti was illustrated in the article,

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“The proliferation of graffiti, even when not obscene, confronts the subway rider with the ‘inescapable knowledge that the environment he must endure for an hour or more a day is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and that anyone can invade it to do whatever damage and mischief the mind suggests’” (Wilson 7).

The graffiti, in this case, is not dangerous or even necessarily offensive. What remains is the feeling that this is untamed area and subject to those who do not obey the law. This is not a violent crime, nor does it cause anyone direct harm. However, Wilson and Kelling maintain that this is only the beginning or a gateway to more serious and daunting crime. Wilson and Kelling draw the same conclusion about the street panhandler. If they are not dealt with, more serious criminals like muggers and robbers believe they have a better chance getting away with crime in an area where potential victims are being bothered and annoyed by a beggar.

Another suggestion made by the authors is that foot patrol officers have many advantages over that of a patrol car. It was their contention that a policeman on foot may not be as mobile or be able to be reached as easily, but a police officer on foot made those around him or her more comfortable and at ease then one in a car. “The door and the window exclude the approaching citizen; they are a barrier” (Wilson 9). While in a car the police officer looks more menacing, especially to a group of youths. Instead of approaching the youth and his friends at a personal level the cop instead rolls down his window. Wilson and Kelling claim that this action also effects the way they speak to potential “troublemakers”. Instead of speaking on even terms, they often take too much of an authoritative tone and cause negative reactions by those who are intimidated. “Some officers take advantage of this barrier, perhaps unconsciously, by acting differently than they would on foot” (Wilson 9). This action also separates officers with everyday citizens and possible informants. They claim that it is harder and less natural to talk to an officer in a squad car. “You approach a person on foot more easily, and talk to him more readily than you do a person in a car” (Wilson 9). In Wilson and Kelling’s opinion, foot patrol may not reduce crime rates, but will instead cause police officers to become more familiar with their surroundings. The neighborhood will also be more willing to accept law enforcement and more likely to side with officers as informants.

A quite interesting idea Wilson and Kelling also suggest as a way to reduce crime in residential areas, is the placement of police officers in buildings as residents where crime is known to often occur. They claim that the presence of officers in these residential areas will work in the same way as foot patrol does on the outside. “…the officer likes the additional income, and the residents feel safer” (Wilson 15).

Wilson and Kelling’s article point out a few other interesting details about crime and whom it happens to. Contrary to popular belief, the elderly and seemingly helpless are not necessarily the targets of thieves and muggers. “Young men are more frequently attacked than older women, not because they are easier or more lucrative targets because they are on the streets more” (Wilson 7). Many people who feel they are targets tend to stay off the street for the most part or avoid confrontation that would lead to a negative outcome. The stigma all young people commit crime is proven to be adopted by the majority of population. For example, “When an interviewer asked people in a housing project where the most dangerous spot was, they mentioned a place where young persons gathered…despite the fact that not a single crime had occurred there” (Wilson 7).

Overall, Wilson and Kelling’s description of how crime escalates in an area, who are victims of crime, and how it should be solved differs very much from that of what was determined previous to this article. Instead of crime being attributed to factors like poverty, racism, and abnormalities, one could add lack of care in a neighborhood. Instead of victims being the elderly or defenseless there are instead found to be the most capable of committing the crimes themselves. Instead of putting more cops in police cars and patrolling the area from nine to five, have fewer cops on foot and have them live in the neighborhood they are patrolling. Wilson and Kelling pointed out many differences on how crime works and suggested many different ways to handle it.

There are some elements of criminological theory being used in the conceiving of the article “Broken Windows”. The basis of the article’s title, “Broken Windows”, is that if a window is broken in a building and not taken care of, more will appear. Another example used in the article dealt with the vandalism of a car. The theory was that “even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding” (Wilson 6). This point stresses that any person can be trained to adopt a pattern of behavior, which is taken right from differential association theory. Normally, the person or persons wouldn’t dream of vandalizing a car, however, seeing other people who look and act like you vandalize a car one could assume it is all right. Another part of differential association theory Wilson and Kelling agree with is that one should pay attention to who his/her intimates are and a higher since of community. They agree with the analogy that “It takes a village to raise a child”. They believe the breakdown of community leads to the breakdown of individuals just like the corruption of someone’s intimates can corrupt therefore corrupt them.

Part of another theory Wilson and Kelling agree with is sub-culture theory and the notion of “we” versus “them. In this particular case, “we” is defined as groups of citizens on the street, while “they” is defined as the police or law enforcement. They determined that if we can eliminate “we” versus “them” by taking police out of their cars and onto the streets. They believe this will create a more personable environment and breakdown some of the social barriers or taboos between an everyday citizen and a cop.

I believe Wilson and Kelling “hit the nail on the head”. By making police officers more formal in assisting their citizens and their surroundings, one creates a safer environment for everyone to live in. However, many police officers only partly agree with that conclusion. “Ninety-eight percent of officers agreed that assisting citizens is as important as enforcing the law, but 88 percent also said that enforcing the law is an officer’s most important responsibility” (Mastrofski 3). Cops believe that it is important but not a number one priority. Wilson and Kelling make sense and hopefully the article they wrote would change the way people think about community policing and victimization.

Policing Neighborhoods: A Report from St. Petersburg Stephen D. Mstrofski Copyright 1990.

Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling The Atlantic Monthly March 1982.

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