Broken Windows | Hidden Brain Decades ago, researchers introduced a new theory of policing. It's called "broken windows" and is seen by many as a cure-all for crime. But the idea is often used in ways its creators never intended.
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How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong

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How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong

How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the early 1980s, a couple of researchers wrote an article in The Atlantic that would have far-reaching consequences. The article introduced a new idea about crime and policing. It was called "Broken Windows." The idea was simple - a broken window is a sign of a neglected community, and a neglected community is a place where crime can thrive. The researchers said, if police could fix the small problems, the big ones would disappear.

BERNARD HARCOURT: So the broken windows theory was this magical solution that basically everybody could like.

VEDANTAM: It quickly became seen as a panacea for crime. Today, we explore how ideas sometimes get away from those who invented them and then are taken to places that were never intended.

HARCOURT: It's a beautiful story. And it's a myth.

VEDANTAM: Our story begins in 1969.


VEDANTAM: The psychologist Philip Zimbardo ran an interesting experiment. He abandoned two cars on the street - one in a mostly poor, crime-ridden section of the Bronx in New York City, and the other in an affluent neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif. Both cars were left without license plates, parked with the hoods up. Within 10 minutes of leaving the car in the Bronx, passersby began taking things of value. The car was quickly stripped for parts. Then, the random destruction began. Windows was smashed. The car was destroyed. But for more than a week in Palo Alto, the other car remained untouched, until...

GEORGE L KELLING: Zimbardo himself gave the car a smash with a sledgehammer. And once the car was damaged, it became fair game.

VEDANTAM: This is George L. Kelling. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

KELLING: In 1982, I co-authored an article called "Broken Windows" with James Q. Wilson. This article has gotten considerable attention in the policing and non-policing world.

VEDANTAM: George was fascinated by what had happened in Palo Alto. Once the car was damaged, things played out exactly as they had in the Bronx.

KELLING: The idea that, once disorder begins, it doesn't matter what the neighborhood is, things can begin to get out of control.

VEDANTAM: George reasoned that the same thing might be true for communities as a whole. A broken window in a neighborhood sends the signal that the neighborhood is uncared for. So if police departments address the little crimes and misdemeanors that might create visible signs of disorder, maybe - just maybe - the bigger stuff wouldn't happen either.

KELLING: Once you begin to deal with the small problems in neighborhoods you begin to empower those neighborhoods. And people claim their public spaces, and store owners extend their concerns to what happened on the streets. Residents control park spaces. Communities get strengthened once order is restored or maintained, and it is that dynamic that helps to prevent crime.

VEDANTAM: This wasn't what many police departments were doing. Officers were focused on solving major crimes. George and his co-author suggested police departments ought to change their focus. They ought to clean up the streets, keep people from smoking pot in public, crack down on subway fare beaters. As it turned out, this was exactly what many communities wanted.

KELLING: If right now we were to go to some neighborhood meeting about problems in the neighborhood, at least three and probably four of those will be problems of disorder. And that is youths taking over a park, prostitutes hustling fathers in front of their children, drug dealers hanging around corners. Those are the kinds of things that comprise a good share of the calls that come to police departments and the demand that's placed on police to do something about these problems.

VEDANTAM: The argument came at an opportune time.

HARCOURT: This was a period of high crime and high incarceration. And it seemed as if there was no way out of that dynamic, and it seemed as if there was no way out of just filling prisons as a way to address the crime problem.

VEDANTAM: This is Bernard Harcourt, professor of law at Columbia University. As policymakers were scrambling for answers to crime, a new mayor in New York came to power offering a solution.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the mayor of the city of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

VEDANTAM: Rudy Giuliani won election in 1993, promising to reduce crime and clean up the streets. Very quickly, he adopted broken windows as his mantra. It was one of those rare ideas that appealed to people on both sides of the aisle. Conservatives liked the policy because it meant restoring order. And liberals liked it, Bernard says, because it seemed like an enlightened way to prevent crime.

HARCOURT: All of a sudden, it seems as if, well, instead of, you know, throwing people in prison and cracking down, all you really had to do was just pick up the trash and get rid of a homeless person and - and fix an abandoned building - just these small forms of disorder that, of course, were, you know, pretty widespread in a city like New York.

VEDANTAM: Rudy Giuliani and his new police commissioner, William Bratton, focused first on cleaning up the subway system. George Kelling again.

KELLING: Here was a system that was entirely out of control. Ridership was dropping. Lawlessness reigned in the subway. And 250,000 people a day weren't paying their fare.

VEDANTAM: The mayor and the police commissioner sent hundreds of police officers into the subway to crack down on turnstile jumpers and vandals. Very quickly, they found confirmation for their theory. Going after petty crime led the police to violent criminals.

KELLING: In some station, it was found that as many as 1 in 10 people who were not paying the fare were either wanted on a warrant for a felony or were carrying an illegal weapon. Not all fare beaters were criminals, but a lot of criminals were fare beaters. It turns out that serious criminals are pretty busy. They commit minor offenses as well as major offenses.

VEDANTAM: The policy was quickly scaled up from the subway system to the entire city of New York. Police ramped up misdemeanor arrests for things like smoking marijuana in public, spraying graffiti, selling loose cigarettes. Almost instantly, they were able to trumpet their success. Crime was falling. The murder rate plummeted. It seemed like a miracle. The media loved the story.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: At first, people laughed when he launched a politeness campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: We begin with sociologist George Kelling and his ideas about how to reduce serious crime by restoring public order in communities.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: It's called broken windows - go after quality-of-life offenses to help reduce bigger crimes.

VEDANTAM: George Kelling and another researcher found what they believed was clear evidence of the success of broken windows. In neighborhoods where there was a sharp increase in misdemeanor arrests, suggesting broken windows policing was in force, there was also a sharp decline in crime. By the time Rudy Giuliani was giving his farewell address at the end of 2001, broken windows had become one of his greatest accomplishments.


RUDY GIULIANI: The reality is that the model that was adopted for dealing with crime in New York City is the very, very best way to assure that you can keep a city safe.

VEDANTAM: The mayor emphasized the beautiful and simple idea behind the success.


GIULIANI: The broken windows theory replaced the idea that we were too busy to pay attention to street-level prostitution, too busy to pay attention to panhandling, too busy to pay attention to graffiti. Well, you can't be too busy to pay attention to those things because those are the things that underlie the problems of crime that you have in your society.

VEDANTAM: In less than a decade, New York was transformed.

HARCOURT: That's right, yeah. Everything's going well...


HARCOURT: ...If you're on the Upper East Side.

VEDANTAM: Bernard Harcourt again.

HARCOURT: Of course, it's going a lot less well if you're in other boroughs or in other neighborhoods where all of the policing and all the arrests are taking place.

VEDANTAM: As broken windows policing was coming into force, some critics said it unfairly targeted communities of color. When we come back, we'll talk about this idea and a deeper problem. Broken windows may not have been quite the raging success we thought it was.

HARCOURT: It's a very sugarcoated idea that, would it be true, it would be marvelous.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.


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VEDANTAM: The rise of broken windows policing and the dramatic fall in crime made for a beautiful story. But right from the start, there were signs something was wrong with the beautiful narrative.

HARCOURT: Crime was starting to go down in New York prior to the Giuliani election and prior to the implementation of broken windows policing. And of course, what we witnessed from that period - and it's basically from about '91 that crime in the country starts going down - is a remarkable, remarkable drop in violent crime in this country. Now, what's so remarkable about it is how widespread it was.

VEDANTAM: So widespread, in fact, that crime dropped not only in New York, but in many other cities where nothing like broken windows policing was in place. In fact, crime even fell in parts of the country where police departments were mired in corruption scandals and largely seen as dysfunctional.

HARCOURT: Los Angeles was wracked with terrible policing problems during the whole time. In fact, the period is kind of bookended on one side by the Rodney King scandal and, on the other side, by the Rampart scandal. In between the two, the LAPD is pretty much dysfunctional. And despite the fact that the LAPD isn't doing anything, basically - I mean, it's - and it's certainly not doing broken windows policing - crime drops as much in Los Angeles as it does in New York.

VEDANTAM: How could this be? Well, there are many theories. Some attribute the nationwide drop in crime to the growing economy, the end of the crack cocaine epidemic, even environmental factors. Some criminologists credit harsher sentencing guidelines. In 2006, Bernard Harcourt reviewed the study George Kelling had conducted in 2001. The earlier study had powerfully made the case that broken windows policing worked. It found that the areas that saw the largest number of misdemeanor arrests also had the biggest drops in violent crime.

HARCOURT: But it turned out that, actually, he had failed to include in his study a very common explanation, which is called a reversion to the mean. And it's something that's well known in the stock market. But basically, the idea is, you know, if something goes up a lot, it tends to go down a lot.

VEDANTAM: A graph in George Kelling's 2001 paper is revealing. It shows the crime rate falling dramatically in the early 1990s, but this window of time gives us a selective picture. Right before this decline came a spike in crime. And if you go further back, you'll see a series of spikes and declines. And each time, the bigger a spike, the bigger the decline that follows, as crime reverts to the mean. George Kelling acknowledges that broken windows may not have had a dramatic effect on crime, but he still thinks it has value.

KELLING: Even if broken windows did not have a substantial impact on crime, order is an end in itself in a cosmopolitan, diverse world. Strangers have to feel comfortable moving through communities for those communities to thrive. Order is an end in itself, and it doesn't need the justification of serious crime.

VEDANTAM: But it's worth noting that this was not the premise on which the theory was sold. Broken windows policing was advertised as an innovative way to control violent crime, not just a way to get panhandlers and prostitutes off the streets. There was also another big problem with broken windows. Here's Bernard Harcourt again.

HARCOURT: We immediately saw an increase - a sharp increase - in complaints of police misconduct. And that's actually one of the most interesting things about the period, really, from 1993 to '96, for instance, when Giuliani is implementing the quality-of-life initiative. We always associate it with greater order because crime dropped 60 percent, but complaints of police misconduct increased by 60 percent. And so you might wonder, well, actually, was it a period of greater order, or was it a period of greater disorder?

And, of course, this reflects the fact that the notion of orderliness is itself constructed by us and by what we focus on. But if you focus on police-civilian relations, starting in 1993, what you're going to see is a tremendous amount of disorder that erupts as a result of broken windows policing with complaints skyrocketing, with settlements of police misconduct cases skyrocketing and, of course, with incidents - brutal incidents - all of a sudden happening at a faster and faster clip.

VEDANTAM: The problem intensified with a new practice that grew out of broken windows. It was called stop-and-frisk. It was embraced in New York City after Mayor Michael Bloomberg won election in 2001. If broken windows meant arresting people for misdemeanors in hopes of preventing more serious crimes, stop-and-frisk said, why even wait for the misdemeanor? Why not go ahead and stop, question, search, anyone who looked suspicious?

HARCOURT: Once Bloomberg became mayor, he turned from a policy of high misdemeanor arrests to a policy of stop-and-frisk. They substitute for each other because both of them provide something to the police that the police feels is necessary, which is to be able to come up to an individual, ask them questions, do some kind of a search, whether it's a pat-down or a full search upon arrest, possibly do a records check, check for warrants, et cetera. And so what it does is it gets a lot more information to the police. You make more informants. You can get fingerprints. And those things are - from a policing perspective, those things are always going to be useful.

VEDANTAM: There were high-profile cases where misdemeanor arrests or stopping and questioning did lead to information that helped solve much more serious crimes, even homicides. But there were many, many more cases where the police stops turned up nothing. In 2008, police made nearly 250,000 stops in New York for what they called furtive movements.

The police did find guns during these stops, but the numbers might surprise you. Only one-fifteenth of 1 percent turned up a gun. Even more problematic - in order to be able to go after disorder, you have to be able to define it. Is it a trash bag covering a broken window, teenagers on a street corner playing music too loudly?

In Chicago, the researchers Robert Sampson and Steven Roudenbush analyzed what makes people perceive social disorder. They found that if two neighborhoods had exactly the same amount of graffiti and litter and loitering, people saw more disorder, more broken in windows in neighborhoods with more African-Americans.

JAMAL JOHNSON: It was, I think, a Wednesday or Thursday night. I was coming home from dinner with a friend.

VEDANTAM: This is Jamal Johnson (ph). He's African-American, 40 years old.

JOHNSON: I'd noticed an increased police presence in the neighborhood because after we'd had dinner, we literally came across something like nine or 10 different cops in about a three-block radius.

VEDANTAM: Jamal was walking with his friend, but eventually the two split off.

JOHNSON: And as I was walking down the street, I noticed the cops looking at us but not really - not really paying us much attention after an initial sort of scan. And then, as I rounded the corner to my block, there was a police officer on the corner. And at that stage, I was by myself and, of course, at that stage, I got stopped.

VEDANTAM: Jamal was carrying a small utility knife. He was a filmmaker and it came in handy on set.

JOHNSON: I had come from a day of work, and I was working on a photo shoot. And a police officer noticed that I'd had my - my work knife, which I know to be street legal, which he sort of asked me to take out and show to him. And then he asked me for my ID. He then called - he called into dispatch once - once he'd have my ID. He asked me some basic questions about where I lived, what my job was, what I was doing with my evening and so forth.

And when he couldn't reach dispatch, he then started to take down my information, at which stage I said to him, please don't put me in the system. You know, you know that I live right here. And you also know that my knife - my knife is legal. At which point he said that the knife wasn't, in fact, legal. And then he asked me if I wanted to - if I preferred to go to jail, to which I said, I think you can understand why I wouldn't like to be in the system.

I also think you know that I don't want to go to jail tonight, at which point he said, well, don't give me a hard time. My response was, excuse me, sir (laughter), I certainly didn't mean to do that; thank you (laughter) - at which stage he took down my info, told me not to have my knife on me again and then - and then let me go home with a sort of a sour look.


JOHNSON: I think it's worse than humiliation to me because it's not personal. And, to me, that's worse because, when your society can detain you, won't let you speak to them, you know, like, in the sense that the guy said, you know, since you - why are you talking back to me? When - when that becomes your relationship with your society, that means that your life or - or at the very least, like, your livelihood - like, you getting to and from work - is at question.

So I don't really necessarily need to feel huge - huge moments of pride from every - from every interaction I have with the police, but I certainly need to feel that - that my life or - or even - or even my evening and my - and my police record isn't in danger just arbitrarily. So that - that feeling of and impersonal, not-friendly government standing over you is pretty terrible.


VEDANTAM: George Kelling is not an advocate of stop-and-frisk. In fact, all the way back in 1982, he foresaw the possibility that giving police wide discretion could lead to abuse. In our interview, I read him a passage from that article that has proven to be prescient.

(Reading) We might agree that certain behavior makes one person more undesirable than another, but how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry? We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question.

KELLING: Yeah, that's a loaded - that's a loaded statement. And it's something that I've struggled with.

VEDANTAM: In August of 2013, a federal district court found that New York's stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional because of the way it singled out young black and Hispanic men. Later that year, New York elected its first liberal mayor in 20 years. Bill de Blasio celebrated the end of stop-and-frisk.


BILL DE BLASIO: Public safety is a prerequisite for the thriving neighborhoods that create opportunity in this city, and so is respect for civil liberties.


DE BLASIO: We're all hungry for an approach that acknowledges we are stronger and safer as a city when police and residents work hand-in-hand.

VEDANTAM: But he did not do away with broken windows. In fact, he reappointed Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner, Bill Bratton.


DE BLASIO: It is a great day for New York City because I'm proud to announce that I'm appointing Bill Bratton as the next police commissioner of the city of New York.

VEDANTAM: Just seven months after taking over again as the head of New York's police department, Bill Bratton's use of broken windows tactics came under fresh scrutiny.


ERIC GARNER: I'm minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time. Please just leave me alone.

VEDANTAM: In this video, shot on a bystander's cellphone on a sunny July day in New York City in 2014, a man is standing on the sidewalk between two police officers. Several more officers are just outside of the frame. The cops are asking the man whether he was selling loose cigarettes - a misdemeanor. The man is visibly and audibly upset. This is not the first time he has been questioned by police. And then the officers tackle him. They bring him to the ground why restraining him with a chokehold - a practice that is banned in New York City.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Put your hands behind your back.

GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

VEDANTAM: The man in the video is Eric Garner. He's African-American, and his name has become synonymous with the growing distrust between police and African-American communities. He died not long after the interaction you just heard. Commissioner Bill Bratton found himself under fire from the media not only about Eric Garner's death, but the entire philosophy of broken windows. Here he is talking with CBS News anchor Maurice Dubois in 2014.


MAURICE DUBOIS: Commissioner, critics are blaming your broken windows policy. It's been hailed all around the world as successful - going after low-level crimes before big ones happen, OK? So in this case, many people are upset, however, because they feel it's targeting communities of color. How do you respond to that?

BILL BRATTON: We are not targeting communities of color. We are targeting behavior. And the behavior is...

VEDANTAM: For George Kelling, this was not the end that he had hoped for. As a researcher, he's one of the few whose ideas have left the academy and spread like wildfire. But once politicians and the media fell in love with his idea, they took it to places that he never intended and could not control.

KELLING: When, during the 1990s, broken windows was a hot-ticket item, I would occasionally read in a newspaper something like, new chief comes in and says, I just read "Broken Windows," and I'm going to implement broken windows tomorrow. I won't repeat the magic words that go through my mind because we're on the air, but I would listen to that with dismay.

VEDANTAM: Dismay because he worried that many officials were so enamored with the simplicity of the broken windows metaphor that they were not willing to stop and think about the nuances. He worried that officers who hadn't received enough training were being asked to exercise discretion and make complex judgments under very high pressure.

KELLING: And so do I worry about the implementation about broken windows? A whole lot. Yes, I worry about the implementation of order maintenance because it can be done very badly. It's to the point now where I - I wonder if we should back away from the metaphor of broken windows. Broken windows was a powerful metaphor. Jim and I used it. We didn't know how powerful it was going to be. It - it's simplified. It was easy to communicate. A lot of people got it as a result of the metaphor. It was attractive, and it carried - and it carried us for a long time. But as you know, metaphors can wear out and become stale.


VEDANTAM: These days, the consensus among social scientists is that broken windows likely did have modest effects on crime, but few believe it caused the 60 or 70-percent decline in violent crime that it's often credited with. Despite all the evidence, broken windows continues to be popular. Bernard Harcourt says there's a reason for that.

HARCOURT: It's a simple story that people can latch onto and that then is a lot more pleasant to live with than the complexities of life. The fact is that crime dropped in America dramatically from the 1990s and that there aren't really good, clean nationwide explanations for it.

VEDANTAM: The story of broken windows is a story of our fascination with easy fixes and seductive theories. Once an idea like that takes hold, it's nearly impossible to get the genie back in the bottle.


VEDANTAM: This episode of the HIDDEN BRAIN podcast was produced by Maggie Penman and edited by Jenny Schmidt. Our staff includes Renee Klahr, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Our unsung hero this week is Jenna Weiss-Berman. She's a producer who used to work at NPR, and she played an important role in getting the HIDDEN BRAIN podcast off the ground. Jenna contributed a lot of reporting to this episode. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and listen to my stories on your local public radio station. If you liked this episode, please write a review. It helps other people find the show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.


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