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Broken Window Theory Argumentative

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Analyse the ‘Broken Window’ theory in relation to crime prevention. What are the main strengths and weaknesses of this theory. The Broken Windows theory was first proposed by two social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the 1982 article, “Broken Windows”, ( Wilson and Kelling, 1982). The analogy of broken windows used to explain this theory is that signs of disorder in a neighborhood inhibit the efforts of the residents to show social control. Any lack of social control makes the neighborhood vulnerable to other anti-social activities such as public drinking and theft. This degradation of the overall morality of the neighborhood, then attracts more unsavoury crimes, such as prostitution and drug dealing, until, eventually, someone is murdered. In summary, the allowance of small disorders eventually lead to larger disorders, which then lead to serious crimes, (Sherman and Eck, 2002). The Broken Window theory is important as it has many relevant implications for preventing crime.

According to the broken window theory, in order to reduce crime in a certain location, you must change its physical and social characteristics. To do this, anything that gives a neighborhood a run-down appearance, should be fixed i.e. roads, buildings, sidewalks etc. What can also improve a neighborhood, according to the theory, an increased enforcement of the law for small infractions. People should be ticketed or arrested for small things like jaywalking, begging and public disorder, (Nolan et al, 2004). The implied logic is that by focusing on small problems, more serious crimes are prevented by police. This theory has been widely studied and has been shown to be both supported and criticized by researchers. This essay will examine both the strengths and weaknesses of the Broken Windows theory. The main strength of the Broken Window’s theory is that it has been supported in the real world and in many field experiments.

For example, experiments investigating littering have shown that areas that are already littered are more likely to be subjected to more littering than in clean areas, (Ramos and Torgler, 2012). This suggests that if some people believe that littering in public places is “normal behaviour”, then they feel justified in committing further acts of littering, whereas if they think that others are not commonly littering then there is less justification to litter, (Torgler et al, 2009). The most popular example of the Broken Window Theory in relation to crime prevention is the City of New York. In 1990, increased police presence on subway platforms, to reduce fare evasion, as it was the biggest “broken window” in the system. Many turnstile jumpers were caught and found to have outstanding arrest warrants and illegal weapons, and as a result, a lot of subway crime was reduced, (Harcourt, 1998). This was expanded to the streets with a focus on begging, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, prostitution, and unsolicited windshield washing, and in the first two years, felony crime was down by 27 percent, (Miller, 2001).

This included a drop in the murder, robbery, and burglary rate by levels ranging from 20 to 40 percent, (Messner et al, 2007). A study correlating traffic accidents with criminal activity, showed that, in a given period of time, 66 percent of males who were involved in 4 or more accidents were known to the courts and/or social service agencies, whereas, in a similar group of males who were accident free in the same time period, only 9 percent were known, (Giacopassi and Forde, 2000). This indicates that an increase in traffic enforcement may lead to a decrease in larger crimes. This idea re-enforces earlier studies that found that if there was an increase in both the level of police presence and the “aggressiveness” of the police patrol style, then this increased traffic enforcement resulted in a reduction in the number of robberies in a particular area, (Weiss and McGarrell, 1996). The Broken Window theory is not something that is limited for use by just the police to prevent crime, members of a community can use this theory as well, to decrease crime in their neighborhood. It has been shown that the more a community is seen to be associated with criminal activity, the more afraid the residents are of being a part of that community, (Pitner et al, 2012).

What has been proposed to counter-act this belief is that community members take a greater concern and pride in the community’s conditions and safety. Volunteer programs involving senior and younger residents, in addition to neighborhood watch programs, can build mutual trust and more solid relations between residents. This can result in residents being more active in reducing minor infractions and, ultimately, crime in the neighborhoods, (Bolder et al, 2005). The Broken Window theory can be used as motivation for a neighborhood to fund youth programs that provide unsupervised teens and children an enjoyable place to spend their time. It may also influence parents to pay more attention to their children and their activities outside of their home environment.

While the Broken Window theory has many supporters and can be backed up by field experiments and statistical data, there are also many detractors of the theory. In the New York example, there are many other factors that could have led to the decrease in crime rates during that time. Factors such as an increase in members of the New York City police force, the changes in drug use away from heroin, toward crack cocaine (the increased availability of crack dropped the price considerably, which made dealers less likely to risk their lives over lower profits, thus reducing violent crime), improved economic conditions, a computerised tracking system that led to a decrease in police response times to crime, a decrease of 18 to 24-year-old males in the population and increasing numbers of hardcore criminals in prison. Also, many large drug gangs were arrested at that time in New York leading to the end of high-fatality “turf wars” between crack dealers, (Kahan, 1997). The sum of all these factors may have led to the observed decrease in crime. In the book “Freakonomics”, economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, propose that the legalisation of abortion during the ‘70s contributed heavily to the decrease in crime during the ‘90s. By reducing the birth of unwanted and possibly fatherless children in this time, then there would be an observed decrease in juvenile delinquency in the ‘80’s and as a result, there would be less hardened criminals in the ’90s, (Levitt and Dubner, 2005).

The supporting evidence for “broken windows” arrests, however, does not explain how only short-term decreases in crime were observed after drug crack-downs. In fact, crime rates returned to the levels they were before the raids within seven days. These drug raids were shown to involve the use of excessive labour and not enough cost-effectiveness, (Sherman and Eck, 2002). It may be the case that policies based on the Broken Windows theory show effective short-term effects but may cause increased crime rates long term. In another study, Harcourt and Ludwig (2006) studied Department of Housing and Urban Development data suggesting that neighborhood disorder does not affect a person’s criminality. Public housing tenants were moved from the inner-city areas to safer neighborhoods. In contrast to what the Broken Window theory proposes, criminality did not decrease in the relocated tenants: The tenants offended just as regularly in the new, neater neighborhoods as when they were in the old ones, (Harcourt and Ludwig, 2006) It has also been argued that the effectiveness of the Broken Windows theory is detrimental to individual rights.

Claims that the police often harass individuals, especially the poor and minorities, in their efforts to enforce minor infringements, imply that the application of the Broken Windows theory produces inappropriate police behavior. It has also been seen that in New York City, police brutality complaints rose during the 1990’s. People claiming for police misconduct against the City of New York increased from 977 in 1987 to over 2,000 in 1994. Also, settlements awarded to plaintiffs in police abuse cases rose from $13.5 million in 1992 to $24 million in 1994, (Wynn, 2001). The fact of the matter is that there may be no accurate way to know how the Broken Window theory affects crime prevention. With additional factors such as new forensic techniques, changing socio-economic climates and advances in police training techniques, it may be that the use of the Broken Window theory is just one of many tools that helps the whole process and not a stand-alone method.

1) Bolda, E., Lowe, J., Maddox, G.,& Patnaik, B. (2005). Community partnerships for older adults: A case study. Families in Society, 86(3), 411e418. 2) Harcourt, B. (1998). Reflecting on the subject: A critique of the social influence conception of deterrence, the broken windows theory, and order-maintenance policing New York style. Michigan Law Review 97: 291 – 389. 3) Harcourt ,B E and Ludwig, J. (2006). Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment. University of Chicago Law Review 73: 271-320. 4) Kahan, D.M. (1997) Social Influence, Social Meaning and Deterrence. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 83, No.2. Mar, pp. 349-395. 5) Levitt, S. D., & Dubner, S. J. (2005). Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York, William Morrow. 6) Messner, S. F., Galea, S., Tardiff, K. J., Tracy, M., Bucciarelli, A., Piper, T. M. and Vlahov, D. (2007). Policing, drugs, and the homicide decline in New York City in the 1990s. Criminology, 45(2), 385–414. 7) Miller, D. W. 2001, Poking Holes in the Theory of ‘Broken Windows’ The Chronicle of Higher Education. 47.22 (Feb. 9, 2001)

8) Nolan, J. J., Conti, N., & McDevitt, J. (2004). Situational policing:
Neighbourhood development and crime control. Policing and Society, 14, 99−117. 9) Pitner, R. O., Yu, M and Brown, E. (2012). Making neighborhoods safer: Examining predictors of residents’ concerns about neighborhood safety.(Report) Journal of Environmental Psychology, March, 2012, Vol.32(1), p.43(7)

10) Ramos, J. and Torgler, B. (2012). Are Academics Messy? Testing the Broken Windows Theory with a Field Experiment in the Work Environment. Review of Law & Economics, 2012, Vol.8(3), pp.563-577
11) Sherman, L. W. and Eck. J. E. (2002). Policing for crime prevention. In L. W. Sherman, D. P. Farrington, B. C. Welsh and D. L. MacKenzie (Eds.), Evidence-Based Crime Prevention (Revised Ed.), (pp. 295–329). New York: Routledge.

12) Torgler, B., Frey, B. & Wilson, C. (2009) Environmental and pro-social norms : evidence on littering. The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 9(1), pp. 1-39. 13) Weiss, A., & McGarrell, E. (1996). Unpublished paper, cited in Preventing Crime (University of Maryland Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice). Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs. 14) Wilson, J. Q. & Kelling, G. L.(1982). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. The Atlantic Monthly, March, 249, 29−38. 15) Wynn, Jennifer R. 2001. Can Zero Tolerance Last? Voices from Inside the Precinct. In Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City, edited by Andrea McArdle and Tanya Erzen, pp. 107–126. New York: New York University Press.

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