(Note: This is a simplistic view of how things came to be and how the theory behind policing has changed over the years for better or worse. I hope it is informative, thought provoking and empathetic).
The Broken Windows Theory postulates that a community will live up to the way that a community is perceived. If there is a broken window in a building people will view their community as damaged or unsafe. In response to this they will either be less likely to contribute to their community positively or they will add to this negativity that they see. There is a snowball effect of crime that occurs when people view their community as being in “disorder”.
This theory, written by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, held order as the key to lowering crime rates and theorized that if order was maintained then a community’s crime rate would drop as people would feel safe, thus leading to contributing positively to the community. They would be less likely to break the first window.
There is something really nice to this theory and in some personal cases it makes sense. When one considers going somewhere there is the question of safety; how nice someplace looks. A place that is well kept is more inviting and this feeling of safety probably contributes to a place being safe.
The Broken Windows Theory had a wide influence on the way that police work is done. After coming up with their idea, Wilson and Kelling offered solutions. They noted that police work was formerly about maintaining order, but now it was all about solving crimes. In the past crimes were solved by private institutions. This is where old noir films or detective stories like Sherlock Holmes and Monsieur Poirot came from. The Private Eye was the one who solved the crime, while police maintained the order.
Wilson and Kelling suggest that police should have the job of fixing broken windows rather than trying to solve every crime. By patrolling the streets they could get to know their communities; who belonged and who didn’t. They would make communities feel safer which would in turn make them safer, causing people to contribute and participate within their communities.
This ideology stuck, causing major reforms, particularly in New York City which cleaned up its streets and made a turn for the better.
But with this reform and change in policy came an added side effect. The stop and frisk policy was put into place, causing young black men to be targeted daily whilst walking through their own communities. Laws were put into place making it even more difficult for homeless men and women to get by.
Cleaning up broken windows is easy, but figuring out who is a broken window is hard, if not impossible.
Mistakes were made, prejudices that weren’t already there began to develop and to grow. Certain kinds of people – usually the poor and minorities – were profiled and had to deal with police interactions frequently. These interactions turned into enmity between both sides. People’s reactions grew louder as they continued in frequency, while the police’s questions turned into interrogations and later the verge of harassment.
We see the results of this in Ferguson where Mike Brown’s murder at the hands of a cop has incited riots, turning the city into a war zone. The community feels as if the police treat them unfairly based on skin color and economic status. The 18 year old’s death caused the town, state, and country to reach a boiling point in the relationship between a community and the police.
And this isn’t all about broken windows, there are hundreds of years worth of racist and discriminatory history wrapped up in it. Abuses of power and unjust laws that some feel have continued into our supposedly post-racist society.
And here we stand with the idea of order looking like men in riot gear – armed with batons and tear gas. Commands given harshly over loud speakers as a community deals with the death of one of its members, some more positively than others.
There was nothing wrong with the theory. Police becoming a part of the community and helping to maintain its order was a wonderful ideal. The problem hinges on deciding who is bad and who is good. Are the people we want out of our communities the ones that aren’t like us? Are they based in our biases?
The thing is, people are not broken windows. They cannot be fixed by sweeping them out of the way and replacing them with something new.
In my studies we looked at an idea called appreciative inquiry. This idea – originated in businesses and was enlarged to include urban planning and community development . Instead of viewing a community from the perspective of their problems, the most effective way to incite change is to build on what the community has going for it. It says that we should view things positively, seeing all the good that is already there before trying to “fix” other things.
These two ideas seem to overlap, with Broken Windows Theory saying that people should have a feeling of safety; a feeling that where they live is a good place. Appreciative inquiry says that we should look for the ways that the community is already good. Both deal with the way we perceive community and cities and where we live. The latter insists that we look for the good in people. That we find the beauty in the broken glass, asking ourselves how we can come together to use what we have.
Obviously this is an optimist’s view of the world, the whole idea is to start from the positive and this doesn’t always work. There is evil in the world. People do bad things because of their circumstances and because, well, they are people. The law is necessary. Justice is necessary. I generally believe the police are a force for good, though my privilege shines through that statement.
Let’s widen our scope. Let’s look for alternative solutions; use our imaginations to discover a world that is better than the one we are currently seeing in Ferguson and other places where people have an unhealthy fear of the ones who are supposed to protect them.