George Kelling, Father of 'Broken Windows' Policing, Dies

Kelling later disavowed the high-volume arrest programs that police departments justified using his theory.


George Kelling, one of the criminologists who introduced the theory of "broken windows" policing and changed the face of law enforcement in several major U.S. cities, died on Wednesday.

Kelling leaves behind an aggressive brand of policing that he eventually complained had morphed into something far beyond what he originally conceptualized. For academic critics, activists, and many of the people subjected to it, "broken windows" became a byword for heavy-handed, racist policing; for supporters it was the force that pulled New York City out of its dark days.

Kelling and co-author James Q. Wilson's basic theory, laid out in a 1982 Atlantic article titled "Broken Windows," argues that putting more beat cops on the street to deter nuisance and "quality of life" crimes—public urination, drunkenness, aggressive panhandling, etc.—will create the social cohesion and order that stops more serious crimes. The theory has the folksy appeal of a truism: If you take care of the little things, the big things will follow.

One problem Kelling and Wilson couldn't solve, although they explicitly warned of it in their original article, was the danger of giving police forces with histories of racism and misconduct the political mandate and discretion to crack down on neighborhoods at will.

"We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question," Kelling and Wilson wrote. "We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority."

That hope in police departments' benevolent discretion turned out to be fatally misplaced.

Kelling and Wilson's theory was put to the test on the biggest possible stage: New York City, where it is still an article of faith among many of the city's top officials. "I put into practice his theories," former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton tells The New York Times, "and they worked."

The earliest success for broken windows theory was cleaning up New York City's graffiti-covered subway cars. By meticulously cleaning every car and not allowing new graffiti to linger, the problem, as predicted, soon vanished.

But keeping a subway car graffiti-free is different than policing human beings. Broken windows policing, combined with several other innovations, soon distorted New York's justice system. In the city's quest for order, the new approach became something far harsher than stopping "squeegee men" from harassing drivers.

At the same time it adopted broken windows policing in 1994, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) also rolled out its data-driven CompStat reporting system. Numbers became the name of the game. To demonstrate progress (or at least effort), precincts had to show arrests and summons. And to do that, beat cops began to stop, search, and question large numbers of residents—what became infamously known as "stop and frisk."

By 2009, the NYPD was stopping 575,000 people a year—nearly 90 percent black or Latino—and frisking more than half of them. Marijuana arrests skyrocketed from 900 in 1993 to more than 40,000 in 2008. Petty marijuana possession wasn't an arrestable offense in New York City, but cops got around that by ordering stop-and-frisk suspects to empty their pockets. If they revealed any marijuana, the suspects had suddenly violated New York's law against openly displaying weed, an arrestable crime. And into the system they went, another victory for public order.

This emphasis on "making numbers," and the unofficial quota system it created, flooded New York City's misdemeanor courts with shoddy cases that prosecutors had little interest in turning into convictions.

The Yale sociologist Issa Kohler-Hausmann studied this phenomenon in her 2018 book Misdemeanorland, an in-depth look at the operations of New York's lower courts. She found that the rate of misdemeanor convictions in New York City dropped sharply during the era of "broken windows" policing, even as arrests for misdemeanor offenses spiked. The city's misdemeanor courts, she argues, had stopped performing their regular function. Rather than establishing facts and adjudicating guilt, they turned into an elaborate machine that marks, hassles, and monitors offenders—essentially, a system for social control.

Kohler-Hausmann's book describes the failure of New York's broken windows policing on a macro level. If there's one case that exemplifies it on an individual level, it's the 2014 death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer.

Garner was being arrested on suspicion of selling "loosie" cigarettes on the street corner, but according to Matt Taibbi's book on Garner's killing, I Can't Breathe, Garner wasn't even selling loosies when the officers tried to arrest him. They just needed someone to arrest, and Garner, a huge man, was a highly visible target, and one they'd already been harassing for months.

Ah, but crime did go down in New York City, didn't it? Well, the NYPD inspector general released a report in 2016 that found no correlation between the NYPD's enforcement of low-level crimes and drops in more serious crime. And after stop-and-frisk essentially ended in 2014, crime in New York City continued to drop. Other academics, like Columbia Law School professor Bernard Harcourt, have argued there has never been any empirical evidence that cracking down on minor crimes prevents more serious ones.

All of this, according to Bratton and other apologists, is the shining success of broken windows policing.

Broken windows policing and CompStat were exported to other major cities with similar results. In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Milwaukee, where the police chief was a staunch disciple of broken windows policing, over its high-volume stop-and-frisk program.

According to the lawsuit, the combined number of Milwaukee police traffic and pedestrian stops nearly tripled from 2007 to 2015, rising from 66,657 to 196,434. The ACLU says CompStat's devotion to numbers turned these stops into, essentially, a quota system. A 2011 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that black drivers were seven times as likely to be stopped by city police as white drivers, and twice as likely to be searched.

In his later years, Kelling tried to distance himself from broken windows' real-world application. In a 2015 essay for Politico, roughly a year after Garner's killing, Kelling wrote that his and Wilson's theory had been "largely misunderstood":

First of all, broken windows was never intended to be a high-arrest program. Although it has been practiced as such in many cities, neither Wilson nor I ever conceived of it in those terms. Broken-windows policing is a highly discretionary set of activities that seeks the least intrusive means of solving a problem—whether that problem is street prostitution, drug dealing in a park, graffiti, abandoned buildings, or actions such as public drunkenness. Moreover, depending on the problem, good broken windows policing seeks partners to address it: social workers, city code enforcers, business improvement district staff, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, and others. The goal is to reduce the level of disorder in public spaces so that citizens feel safe, are able to use them, and businesses thrive. Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort—not the first.

There's another truism that might make a good name for a policing theory—the one about hammers and nails.

Meanwhile, the fact that Kelling disavowed this monstrous version of broken windows policing hasn't stopped its biggest cheerleaders, such as Heather Mac Donald, from continuing to insist that it is all that stands between good people and the forces of anarchy, or that the occasional death for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes is a sad but necessary externality.

Unfortunately, the pernicious effects and misplaced hope of the broken windows theory of policing seems all but assured to outlive its creators.

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  1. After reading Reason for 6 years it has finally convinced me libertarianisn has no actual answers for anything and is probably just a vehicle for advancing open borders neoliberalism where the world can come here and drive down wages and we can't go anywhere.

    1. +1

    2. Reason in the Trump Era = GoT Season 8.
      Lots of shitty conclusions being rushed to...

    3. Reading Reason will have that effect on a person. That's why I focus on the comments and generally avoid what the Reason staff has on offer.

      1. I do the same. I rarely read the articles now. I just come here for the discussion.

    4. Sigh, another parody account.

    5. I guess all that reading went right over your head.

      Libertarianism does offer solutions, or more exactly a single solution: let individuals decide for themselves. People should be free to make their own choices so long as they are not harming anyone else. PERIOD. Case in point: who cares if Eric Garner was selling loosies? If he want forcing anyone to buy his loosies, why did the cops need to kill him?

      The more you entrust the power to officials (at any level) the more it goes to their heads and they start acting like mad queens riding fire breathing dragons. Stop trusting and handing power over to your self-styled “betters:” that’s the lesson you missed.

      1. "Stop trusting and handing power over to your self-styled “betters:” that’s the lesson you missed."

        So where's The Rev?

      2. you didn't read the original Broken Windows article did you

      3. yes, the NAP is great against protecting the public from muggings and street shitters. just yell non aggression principle at the dude taking a shit on the sidewalk or the guy threatening to beat you if you don't hand over your wallet.

        the truth is people that openly flout the small laws in public are very often the ones that also violate the big ones. ignoring crime is what turned america into a shithole from the 70s through the 90s in the first place. under your principles were put into action and it turned new york city into a den of inequity. and since they have been abandoned property and violent crimes have decreased 300% in nyc. the horror.

        1. Do you even NAP?

          How does a guy threatening to beat you unless you hand him your wallet NOT qualify as a blatant violation of the NAP? He has initiated force against you and you are now welcome to respond with force.

          As for pooping, that violates property rights, doesn’t it? If it’s okay to require dog owners to pick up after their pets when the dogs poop on city property (the sidewalk) or private property (your lawn), it’s not unreasonable to expect the same from a person. Also, last time I checked, it is generally not okay go around naked in public unless you’re non-human. It’s kinda hard for a person to poop without at least exposing their lower half. It’s reasonable to require people who are outdoors in plain view to keep their pants on (literally) until they find a restroom where they poop like a civilized human.

          1. Going around naked in public doesn't violate the NAP.

            1. Counter example: Nancy Pelosi

          2. Quick Question: How do you "require" these things?

            Maybe by hiring some people tasked with enforcing these requirements? What happens when they see someone who is non-compliant and is violating someone else's , or everybody else's rights? Should we give these people the authority to forcibly stop the offenders?

    6. If you want high wages you can go to Australia.

      Australia’s minimum wage is currently $18.29 per hour or $694.90 per 38 hour week (before tax). That's just what the checkout girl in Woolworths makes, if you actually have a job skill, like heavy equipment operator, you can make a lot more.

      1. 18.29 AU$ x 0.69 (exchange rate) = 12.62 USD. Did you go to the AOC school of economics?

        1. For further contemplation - - -
          Income tax kicks in at 18,200, with 4 brackets
          18,201 - 37,000 at up to 9.65%
          37,001 - 90,000 at 9.65 to 23.11%
          90,001 - 180,000 at 22.78 to 30.05%
          180,001 on up at 30.05 to a max just under 45%
          And also a medicare tax of 2% (It started at 1% and doubled to keep up with costs)

          1. Oh your going to bring in the downsides are you? 🙂

            I actually posted that to point out the simple absurdity of just considering "wages" in these equations.

            No, I didn't go to "the AOC school of economics" but the "they took er jerbs" crowd did.

          2. Although I confess that their "medicare tax of 2%" looks pretty good compared to our 2.9% (1.45x2) especially when you consider that they actually get medicare for theirs when we have to wait until turning 65.

          3. And lastly, I was responding to "where the world can come here and drive down wages and we can’t go anywhere" which I demonstrated is plainly untrue since by pointing out that "If you want high wages you can go to Australia."

        2. 12.62 USD is still more than 7.25 USD or did you go to the AOC school of mathematics?

          1. The more pertinent questions are "is a high minimum wage a good thing?" and, "are high wages, in and of themselves, a good thing?"

        3. Oh, and for what it's worth, Australia's immigration policy (even under leftwing Labor) is much more Trumpian than most Americans and certainly most Australians will ever admit.

          1. And Canada. As proper.

    7. you should try mises.org

  2. Yeah, Homicides falling from 2,000 to 400, and eventually 300, had nothing to do with policing. Nothing.

    1. now lets imaging Broken Windows and Stop and Frisk where marijuana is legal....

    2. 'Twas just a lucky break. Bound to EVENTUALLY happen.


      Just because something effective gets abused, it doesn't mean it is not effective. Reason gets that when it comes to drugs. Why it cannot get that here is somewhat odd.

    3. I wonder how many of those remaining 300 homicides were perpetrated by cops themselves?

      I guess few to none, because procedures were followed, and furtive motions were responded to, and other such passive voice statements were made and defended by the unions.

      1. Remember too, the police aren't actually required to report any of their thefts, killings, or other abuses of power. It's encouraged *wink wink*, but not required.

        So. . .if you were a cop who just shot a man to death for fun, then pretended he was "charging right at you", would you report the incident to a bean counter, unless it made the news?

    4. No, it probably didn't. Homicides went down everywhere, even places without this type of policing. Generally speaking, the decline in homicide rates is an economic effect more than a law enforcement effect.

      1. So , you are telling me that homicides fell by 80% nationwide during the 1990s? Interdasting... I'm gonna need that cite

  3. That....isn't what the article said.

  4. I actually saw the Broken Windows theory in action, in an apartment complex I lived in. When I moved in, the place was okay. Yet, although the rental agreement stated clearly, NO DOGS ALLOWED., the manager was too lazy to enforce it. You can guess what happened: dogs overran the place, and on a summer day you could smell the stink of canine feces like a miasma. But wait, there's more: The manager turning a blind eye to the dogs signaled the human trash that "No one is on watch here," and soon the place was dominated by wiggah trash. I didn't mind the obvious drug use and trafficking (although the lease stated "illegal activities will not be tolerated"), hoping they would all overdose. (Think of it as Evolution in Action.) What I did mind was the clientele entering and leaving the building at all hours of the night, stampeding up and down the staircase like a herd of drugged-out buffalo, then the dealers entertaining their pals with loud music 24/7. Eventually the cops got wise and raided the place. Normally not a fan of narcs or drug laws, but I can't say I was sorry to see the cops "take out the trash."

    1. If you've ever raised kids, and dealt with their friends and peers, who have different levels of discipline at home, this is all quite self-evident...

      1. A huge chunk of NYC's "safety" is due to the rampant gentrification of it.

        Do you think hippies et al would've come there BEFORE Giuliani changed shit up so hard?

    2. Get a load of the dog hater here. Never trust someone that hates dogs.

      1. Agreed.

        I too once smelled dog shit everywhere, and then I learned the local Congresscritter was in the area for the town hall event. Not much a landlord can do about that.

      2. Dogs are not people, and many dog lovers are selfish POS’s who think they are entitled to bring their dog everywhere.

        1. And entitled to leave their dog shit everywhere too.

      3. "Get a load of the dog hater here." That seems to be the favorite Straw Man argument of irresponsible dog lovers. Object to my letting my dog do whatever he wants, regardless of other people's rights? Then you must hate dogs!

  5. That isn't what Kelling said? Because CJC distorts his "disavowal". Broken Windows is not Arrest Quotas = FACT.

    I think everyone would rather live in Giuliani's NYC than in today's Bay Area or Pacific Northwest, where you deal with vagrants shooting up and pooping everywhere, property crimes are not investigated, and violent gangs are free to beat up political opponents, journalists, and passers-by, under the turned heads of the police, lest things 'escalate'....

    1. I personally am glad the virtue signaling crowed of the West Coast have to live in that.

  6. >>>forces of anarchy

    love that. bunch of leave-me-alones as a force.

    1. begging and shitting all over the place is not leaving anyone alone.

      1. Your cubicle sounds like a terrible place to work.

        1. Sorry to be so down on your hobbies there, but they do affect other people.

          1. My John-watching hobby has indeed been eating into my quality time with your mom.

      2. lost me. homeless =/ forces of anarchy?

  7. Paul Krugman must really hate this guy.

  8. First time I've ever read the original article. It's quite interesting and could have led down many more productive paths.

    Specifically, there's a lot of truth to one of things he says - that the original nightwatchman function was order-maintenance not crime-resolution. Or Should police activity on the street be shaped, in important ways, by the standards of the neighborhood rather than by the rules of the state?

  9. Broken windows policing does work you jackals. I live and work in the Bay Area. Are you reason writers saying you would rather walk out your door to step in shit or needles, go on BART and see people shooting up and harassing people, Antifa thugs rioting at a Ben Shapiro speech, car breakins not investigated. Hell if your house is being broken into and your video system shows it, the cops will not come out.

    But meh meh systemic racism! Meh disparate impact. Fucking please, if you had to live under these conditions you’d lose that act really quick. You remind me of the progs in SF who are against guns because they ‘live in a safe area’

    1. esteve7, you are 100% correct. My uncle has lived in NYC for decades, before broken windows, to this day. Julliani is a god to him. One of the examples he tells me is how they started arresting people for jumping subway turnstiles. What they found by doing that was wanted criminals with long rap sheets that were previously eluding them.

      It worked. Could it have been done better? Sure. Can we learn from NYC and do better next time? Absolutely. San Francisco, the blueprint is here.

      It worked.

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