Reflecting on the Subject: A Critique of the Social Influence Conception of Deterrence, the Broken Windows Theory, and Order-Maintenance Policing New York Style

In 1993, New York City began implementing the quality-of-life initiative, an order-maintenance policing strategy targeting minor misdemeanor offenses like turnstile jumping, aggressive panhandling, and public drinking. The policing initiative is premised on the broken windows theory of deterrence, namely the hypothesis that minor physical and social disorder, if left unattended in a neighborhood, causes serious crime. New York City’s new policing strategy has met with overwhelming support in the press and among public officials, policymakers, sociologists, criminologists and political scientists. The media describe the “famous” Broken Windows essay as “the bible of policing” and “the blueprint for community policing.” Order-maintenance policing has been called the “Holy Grail of the ’90s.” “There is little dispute that the theory works,” says the ABA Joumal. It has sparked “a revolution in American policing,” according to the Christian Science Monitor, in an article captioned “One Man’s Theory Is Cutting Crime in Urban Streets.” Even the recent U.S. News & World Report cover story on crime – a cover story that debunks nearly every hypothesis for the national decline in crime – makes a passing curtsy to the quality-of-life initiative: “Clearly, smarter policing was spectacularly decisive in some cities like New York.” Former Police Commissioner William Bratton, the principal architect of the quality-of-life initiative, credits the broken windows theory with falling crime rates in New York City. “These successes didn’t just happen,” Bratton contends. “They were achieved by embracing the concept of community policing.” Wesley Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University, has conducted an empirical study of the broken windows theory and concludes that “‘[b]roken windows’ do need to be repaired quickly.” George Kelling, co-author of Broken Windows and of a recent book entitled Fixing Broken Windows, contends that Skogan “established the causal links between disorder and serious crime – empirically verifying the ‘Broken Windows’ hypotheses.” In this euphoria of support, it is today practically impossible to find a single scholarly article that takes issue with the quality-oflife initiative. It stands, in essence, uncontested – even in the legal academy.