Last Updated 28 May 2020

Broken window concept

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The “broken window” concept is among the most popular frameworks, designed for better understanding of the nature of crime and its prevention. George Kelling was the first criminologist, who suggested that even tiny problems are visible – for instance, a broken window points to the house owner’s ignorance and indifference. The paper is intended to discuss the concept and its application in details.

“The essence of “broken windows” is that neighborhood disorder –physical decay, such as graffiti, litter and dilapidation; and minor misconduct, such as public drinking and vagrancy - will, if left unchecked, signal potential miscreants that no one is watching” (Miller, 2001, p. 27). This means, grave crimes begin with minor misdemeanors, and notorious criminals like serial killers often ‘begin with’ drug or alcohol abuse, which grow into social pathology, constantly reinforced by the conviction in the overall permissiveness (Miller, 2001).

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Conversely, when eliminating the traces of minor misconducts like litter and graffiti in public places, the visitors become more conscientious about the overall public safety in this place. At first, the concept was applied in subways: Bratton, who received a piece of “broken window” advice from Kelling and subsequently wrote: “Fare evasion was the biggest broken window in the transit system. We were going to fix that window and see that it didn’t get broken again” (Miller, 2001, p.

28). Thus, the group increased the number of policemen, supposed to detect the stowaway passengers – as a result, they found that a number of these ‘wrongdoers’ carried illegal arms and some of them had light drugs like marijuana. Finally, the subway became much cleaner and safer, as the number of combats and conflicts substantially decreased. Later, Mr. Bretton was hired as New York police commissioner, assigned to struggle with street prostitution.

Violent and aggressive behavior and public drinking. The executive of the law enforcement agency introduced new computerized systems of surveillance in public places and increased the staff of the agency –as a result, the number of felony crimes fell beyond the expected decrease of the aforementioned misdemeanors (Miller, 2001). On the other hand, the causes of crime are still vague, as a complex of factors contribute. Most studies, however, empirically confirmed the “broken window” idea.

For instance, Skogan conducted document analysis and scrutinized the earlier surveys in more than 40 localities. “He found that measures of social and physical decay correlated with certain kinds of serious crimes” (Miller, 2001, p. 28). On the other hand, new obstacles to policing emerged. As Kelling notes (1999), proactive approach to policing (prevention of crimes through putting the “broken window” concept into practice) is nowadays viewed by public as “soft policing”.

On the other hand , “Community policing is inherently proactive: scan for problems; diagnose them; try to prevent them from occurring again; if they recur, try to limit the damage and restore the victim/family/community’s functioning” (Kelling, 1999, p. 10). This means, community policing often involves much more efforts than “crime fighting”, as in this case the commissioner or the police officer acts as an strategic analyst, supposed to have the ability to anticipate problems.

Kelling’s approach to policing inherently includes regular interviews with community members, which means, police officers should keep in touch with the residents in order to identify the discuss the problems the community members are concerned about. In addition, the functioning of the whole law enforcement apparatus should be more transparent for community members, i. e. they should have an opportunity to learn the reasons for their neighbor’s arrest, for instance, as this measure is likely to act as a deterrent for others and a reminder about the policy’s care about public safety.

On the other hand, a number of critics expressed their fear of the possible tendency for the expansion of the “soft policing” and the substantial elimination of reactive and radical measures. In this sense, Kelling alleges: “ The fact that police add options to their repertoire of methods, try to limit damage and restore functioning does not mean that conventional assertive law enforcement is disallowed as a legitimate police tactic.

For example, understanding the dynamics of New York City’s “squeegee men” –unwanted car window washers who intimidate drivers into giving them money – and talking to them did nothing to deter their behavior” (Kelling, 1999, p. 11). Nevertheless, as one can understand, civil law can be used by the police – as Kelling states, the new initiatives including such penalties like forfeiture, restitution and civil fines are placed upon those committing domestic violence, illegal weapons possession or disclose aggressive racist behavior.

This means, a punishment should refer to the least possible intervention into the person’s life: for instance, if a criminal is not aggressive or dangerous and hasn’t committed grave crime, arrest is likely to appear a redundant measure. To sum up, the ‘broken window’ approach to policing refers not merely to the elimination of minor crimes, but also to the overall prevention of deviance and more extensive use of civil liberties in the issues like discretion.

In general, Kerlling’s position is positivistic, as he views individuals as basically disciplined and law-abiding, but in order to increase public awareness in the importance of citizens’ own efforts in the sphere of public safety, it is important to show them that the police are sensitive and responsive even to the minor misconducts. Reference list Miller, D. (2001). Poking Holes in the Theory of ‘Broken Window’. Chronicle of Higher Education, 2: 27-34. Kelling, G. (1999). “Broken Windows” and Police Discretion. National Institute of Justice Research Report. Available online at: http://www. ncjrs. org/pdffiles1/nij/178259. pdf

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