Ferguson and Broken Windows Theory

(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.

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3 Responses to Ferguson and Broken Windows Theory

  1. Dan Stokes says:

    Jacob , very interesting article. I have had the pleasure of reading a few of your writings, but this is the first one I have responded to.

    First, I want to add a little perspective to one sentence of your article: “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.” While I understand what you are saying, I find this sentence to be grossly inaccurate and presumptuous. First, the incident that led to Brown’s death has not been ruled a murder and quite frankly, I believe that Officer Wilson will be cleared of any wrongdoing and his actions will be justified. I will just make sure I am clear: I believe that will be the case, however, before I make up my mind about what happened, I will wait until the outcome is publicized. In the meantime I will keep both sides in my prayers. Second, to state that the incident itself caused the city to turn into a warzone is also, in my opinion, I find partially inaccurate. I believe a primary factor that turned the city into a warzone was the mass media hysterics bloated with inflammatory information, much of it proving to be false. Poor journalism broadcasted nationwide was the catalyst that turned Ferguson into a warzone, not the officer involved shooting. People from all over the country travelled to Ferguson after the media blast, thus the rioting occurred on the day after the shooting, versus the same day. Again, this is my belief, but considering the fact other black males have been killed by police while unarmed and for some reason, there was no rioting, supports my belief. In many of those situations, the media presented what the police released, rather than information that was not vetted before aired.

    Now onto the more uplifting and less sad part: your thoughts on the Broken Window Theory. I enjoyed reading your views on the theory and how it came into play in Ferguson. Unfortunately I do not know enough about Ferguson to say if the Broken Window Theory had anything to do with the situation, however, I will speak about the Broken Window Theory based on my studies of academia, as well as my years of experience in law enforcement.

    The Broken Window Theory does not just related to the feeling of safety in a particular area, in fact, it also has to do with making a particular area feel inviting to the criminal element. It is a well known, and proven fact, that run down areas not patrolled by an overseeing entity, often are breeding grounds for criminal activity. When you have an area that is trashed, run down and uncared for, those who prey upon others will use it to their benefit. If you take that run down area, clean it up and keep it nice, those who prey upon others be less likely to take it over. For example: A retaining wall, approximately 1000’ long, that faces a street has been tagged by vandals. Everyday when you drive by, the “artwork” is clearly visible. Leaving that graffiti on the wall will tell other taggers that the wall is fair game because no one cares enough to remove the graffiti. If you remove the graffiti, then a tagger will think twice before they tag there because it is clear that someone, somewhere, is taking care of that wall. This means they could be watching the wall, and if they are not, as soon as the tagger displays his artwork on the wall, it is going to be removed, thus defeating the purpose of tagging.

    Additionally, as you brought up, the Broken Window Theory brought about an increase presence of law enforcement in communities. You mentioned the stop and frisk actions of the NYPD. Did you know that this practice is common throughout the United States? As a law enforcement officer, I contact multiple people over the course of my shift and have contacted hundreds, if not thousands of people over the course of my career. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stopping and talking to people, in fact, it is not only proactive police work, it is great police work. The fact that one agency is said to be targeting black males in their own community does not make the entire idea a negative side effect, it just means that the agency may need to take a look at how it operates. I do not generally see the Broken Window Theory applied to people, as I believe, just like you said, “people are not broken windows”.

    When you begin to talk about dealing with people, the philosophy transforms into the Community Oriented Policing philosophy. I am very fortunate to work for a law enforcement agency and a city that generally has the best interests of the community at large in it’s sights. That simple fact has created a community that, for the most part, supports its law enforcement. With that said, there are still large groups of people in our city that do not like law enforcement and additionally, there is another percentage of people that prey upon others. So, what do you do? How do you protect the majority of law abiding citizens, whether they like the police or not, from those who live a life of crime? Well under the Community Oriented Policing philosophy, you partner with the community. Engaging the masses through neighborhood associations and business associations, having events that invite the community to come see and get to know their public safety personnel, but most of all, having police officers who are involved in their community, day in and day out. Under this philosophy, officers are assigned to neighborhoods to serve as contacts with the police department; they attend neighborhood association meetings, neighborhood watch meetings and are assigned to patrol specific neighborhoods during their shifts. Those officers are seen in their neighborhoods, and just like they learn who belongs in the neighborhood and who doesn’t, the community learns whom they are so they know who to speak to about community issues. When a law enforcement agency partners with it’s community, you actually remove the citizens from being just onlookers to being active participants in making their community a safer place. No longer will the community complain that the police don’t fix the problem in the community because now, the community has the tools to help fix the problems themselves. They have resources. They have outlets to vent to. They truly have a stake in their community.

    With that said, I would venture to say that the issue in Ferguson was probably that the Ferguson Police did not have a strong positive relationship with the community and lacked a strong Community Oriented Policing philosophy. Thus when the media broadcast that an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by white police officer, the lack of community between the police and the people of Ferguson allowed the racial tension and feelings of unjust treatment by the police to cause the people to protest. The protests began peacefully, but then the criminal element, the ones I mentioned earlier, began to prey on the honest, law abiding citizens as well as the police officers by changing the protests into riots by looting, shooting at police, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. The bad guys saw a broken window in Ferguson and they moved right in.

    I will leave you with this little (big) tidbit from my heart:

    Law enforcement is a line of work that almost everybody I know does not understand. Unfortunately most people will not be able to truly understand it because it takes years of learning to just be able to do it. It involves constant studying of laws, including statutory and case law, constant studying of police tactics, of legal procedures and of policies. You have to be prepared to end a life and bring a life into this world. You have to be prepared to be a parent, a counselor, a chaplain, a social worker, a therapist and even just someone for somebody to vent to. You have to work in the elements: hot, cold, windy, snowy, wet, smoky, dry, humid. You have to multitask: drive, operate the radio, use the lights and sirens, clear traffic, pass cars, get through intersections against a red light, speed, drive slow, turn, stop, accelerate. You have to be strong when it is hard. You have to be strong when it is sad. You have be strong when something is just so gosh darn funny that you can barely hold it in. You have to constantly be aware of your surroundings. You have to be tactical in every move you make. You have to be caring about everything you do, for it could be scrutinized later. You have to be prepared to lose a friend unexpectedly. You have to know that at any moment, someone could choose to try to end your life and you must be prepared to survive.

    Being a law enforcement officer is not easy. It is not a job for everyone; in fact, it is a job that very few can do properly. You have to remember law enforcement officers are human. They have wives and husbands. They have daughters and sons. They have parents. They have dogs, cats, houses, cars and hobbies. They have good times, bad times, fun times and sad times. They have emotions: they feel sadness, happiness, frustration and anger. They feel pain. They bleed. I will say it again: they are human.

    One thing is common amongst all law enforcement officers; they are ready and willing to be the thin blue line that divides the good in this world from the evil. They will stand against the looters, wearing the riot helmets and wielding batons. They will run into the school shooting to find and stop the bad guy(s). They will check your house for burglars after you come home to find the door kicked in. They will climb into your burning car, cut your seatbelt and pull you out. They will take your lost child home to you. They will take the life of an evildoer if it is necessary, and then live with it for the rest of their lives. They will give their lives IF that is what is required. They will do all of that, and more, so you don’t have to. Do not make the mistake in believing they have to give their lives or allow themselves to be injured. They are not punching bags; they are not dummies to beat up. All of them have the right to fight back, to protect themselves, to survive and to go home safe to their families.

    When you hear some officer accused if misconduct, take a minute to remember that being a law enforcement officer is so much more than most people know, to remember that there are two sides to every story and to be one of the few who doesn’t jump to conclusions.

    Lol. I love how when I did the first post, it removed all of my indentations…. so now here is a repost with actual paragraphs. 🙂

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