Last week, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced his intention to bring “broken windows” policing to the city in the form of an ordinance that, if approved, would allow for criminal (rather than civil) implications for those who disregard tickets issued for routine offenses. “Fixing the little things prevents the big things,” he said, neatly encapsulating the thrust of the broken windows theory. With origins in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling that itself called on ideas from a 1968 book by Wilson, the theory’s central premise is that public disorder sends a message that encourages crime, and that restoring order reduces offenses. The Chicago plan, subsequently endorsed by mayor Rahm Emanuel, would be just the latest application of what critical theorist and legal scholar Bernard Harcourt describes as a politically popular but analytically weak strategy.
Broken windows policing, also known as the “order-maintenance” approach, is most commonly associated with New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” crackdown in the early 1990s. The apparent success of the NYC program led hundreds of law enforcement representatives from around the world to visit the NYPD for briefings and instruction in New York-style policing, conventionally assumed to have been proven effective.
Surprisingly, though, the broken windows theory had never been empirically verified, and, as Harcourt argued in 2001’s Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing, the then-existing social scientific data suggested that the theory is probably not right. In a chapter he’s just contributed to Prevention and the Limits of the Criminal Law, a new book from Oxford University Press, Harcourt has surveyed the most recent studies and again concludes that the broken windows approach is really “window dressing,” and that there are actually “more profound processes of real estate development and wealth redistribution”—with complicated race, class, and ethnic dimensions—that are obscured by faith in order maintenance.
With record homicide rates devastating communities and bringing unwanted outside scrutiny, one can understand why the city of Chicago would be looking for a new policing strategy. Whether or not the adoption of broken windows policing can be causally linked to crime reduction—and the data suggest it cannot—the practice rests on a series of assumptions and judgments about the nature of disorder. As Harcourt explained in a 2002 Boston Review article based on Illusion of Order, and as we see confirmed by New York City’s aggressive Stop and Frisk policy, itself a broken windows-style tactic, such theories reflect the modern picture of the disorderly as “an unattached, young, most often racialized other, with a powerful tendency to commit crime and cause disorder.”
We know the disorderly when we see them. We can identify them easily. From their clothing, their habits, their glitter, their grit, their smell, their look. We just know who they are—entre nous.
Or do we really? After all, what exactly is the distinction between eccentricity, nonconformity, unconventionality, difference, disorder, and criminality? What makes distinctive clothes, youthful exuberance, or loitering disorderly? Why does order maintenance focus so heavily on certain types of street disorder and not others? Police brutality is a form of disorder, yet it appears nowhere as a target of broken windows policing. Everyday tax evasion—paying cash to avoid sales tax, paying nannies under the table, using an out-of-state address—is disorderly. So are public corruption, sham accounting practices, nepotism, insider trading, and fraud. Why does broken windows focus on the dollar-fifty turnstile jump rather than on the hundred-million dollar accounting scam? And what exactly is the meaning of neighborhood disorder? Sure it may signal that a community is not in control of crime. But it may also reflect an alternative subculture, political protest, or artistic creativity. An orderly neighborhood may signal commercial sex, wealthy neighbors with personal bodyguards, foreign diplomats, a strong mafia presence, or a large police force.
The central claim of the broken windows theory—that disorder causes crime by signaling community breakdown—is flawed. The categories of “disorder” and “the disorderly” lie at the heart of the problem. Those categories do not have well-defined boundaries or settled meanings. When we talk about “disorder,” we are really referring to certain minor acts that some of us come to view as disorderly mostly because of the punitive strategies that we inflict as a society. We have come to identify certain acts—graffiti spraying, litter, panhandling, turnstile jumping, and prostitution—and not others—police brutality, accounting scams, and tax evasion—as disorderly and connected to broader patterns of serious crime. Hanging out on the front steps of a building or loitering with neighbors only signals that the community is not in control if hanging out or loitering is perceived as violating certain rules of conduct. But, of course, that depends on the neighborhood—and in some, in fact, it reflects strong community bonds and informal modes of social control. Graffiti only signals that the neighborhood is indifferent to crime if graffiti is viewed as violating the rules of the community. But graffiti is sometimes understood to be political or artistic expression or social commentary.
In his work on order maintenance, Harcourt concludes that any connection between the implementation of a broken windows policy and a reduction in crime is likely due to the increased surveillance, arrests, background checks, fingerprint comparisons, stop-and-frisks, line-ups, and overall police-civilian contact, none of which are actually required to reduce crime, and all of which disproportionately target minority communities. Given the apparent insignificance of the orderliness itself, and the above-mentioned package of behaviors and demographics labeled disorderly, Harcourt deems order maintenance policing just a method of enforcing an aesthetic preference under the guise of combating serious crime.