Broken Windows Theory: Kelling’s Legacy to Block Watch and BC, by Gabriel Pelletier
On May 15th, 2019 George Kelling passed away at 83 years old. He left what he admitted was a mixed legacy with his signature crime prevention contribution to the world, widely known as Broken Windows Theory.
The 1982 article, Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety, which Kelling co-authored with James Wilson, fuelled different crime prevention and preventative policing strategies in several big cities in the United States throughout the 80’s and is recognized for success in the 1990’s.
The theory in a nutshell is the idea that one broken window, left unfixed, can literally be an invitation to more vandalism, mischief, theft and even leading to major crime.
One obvious positive effect from this theory that is surely evident to anyone reading this, is its influence on every city, every strata and every business improvement association that encounters vandalism. It is a theory that supports the common-sense principle that any damage must immediately be repaired rather than left to stand as a sore thumb.
However, Broken Windows faces criticism that it is an incomplete theory – that there are more important factors that contribute to drops in crime. Kelling himself would agree at least in this regard: that not only are all good ideas are worth sharing, but even more so if good ideas work well together.
In fact, basic training for BC municipal Block Watch Coordinators includes CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) which combines Broken Windows theory with a host of compatible best practices that we use to advise captains about neighbourhood safety. In this training, Broken Windows is explained under the principle of good management – that a property must be managed well so that damage to property is repaired in good time.
Another, darker critique that was leveled against Broken Windows Theory includes the charge that it gave police officers reason to over-police lower-class communities and minority races in the inner city. The charge was that windows would be fixed but also that any sign of crime and social disorder should also be swept under the rug.
On the one hand this criticism undoubtedly has examples in Canadian cities, but cultural and structural changes over time have been good for improving trust in police forces in Canada. Also, even if this were true, not implementing Broken Windows theory for fear of being accused of racial and class intimidation would be grossly unwarranted.
Kelling’s legacy for Block Watch and BC communities can be seen in our cities’ beautification plans, progressive urban planning, and incorporating CPTED at all levels of development.
The imagery of a broken window is in some sense metaphor for all types of crime but it is most useful for us in Block Watch to just think of it as literally damaged property. Broken Windows is an especially successful theory when we keep it simple.
We are happy at least that damage to a fence can prevent crime if promptly fixed, or it can encourage crime if left for months. We are certain of that, and we have George Kelling to thank.
Source for original article in The Atlantic Magazine, March 1982.