George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s widely cited March 1982 essay in The Atlantic advocates a new style of policing across US cities, one concerned with surveilling minor infractions in the built environment and monitoring “undesirable” patterns of human behavior. This method, dubbed “community policing,” is imagined around the figure of a policeman who is deployed on foot instead of in cars, who surveils neighborhoods at the “tipping point” of disorder instead of ones already overrun with crime, and who is concerned with monitoring and punishing behavior instead of making evidence-based arrests. The essay expresses many assumptions and judgments by Kelling, criminologist and consultant to the National Police Foundation, and Wilson, a political scientist and Professor of Government at Harvard University. While not always based in fact, these assertions were nonetheless received as common wisdom by many readers.
The authors’ argument rests on a central metaphor which equates “disreputable” people and actions with the defaced features of the built environment. According to the authors, if a broken window in a building goes unrepaired for too long, all of the neighborhood’s other windows will soon be broken — a slippery slope they claim is true of wealthy neighborhoods as well as poor ones. For Kelling and Wilson, community members’ perception of their safety is as important as their actual safety itself because, according to the authors, the presence of vandalism — or disorderly persons — causes neighbors to spend more time off the streets and inside the safety of their own homes, steadily leading to emptier streets, which are more vulnerable to criminal behavior through the erosion of informal community control mechanisms.
This order-maintenance function of the police, fortifying community control, is imagined as serving the collective good — contrasted with investigating crime, which is solely geared toward the safety of individuals. This shift is advocated through a historicist lens: the police should cease their current preoccupation with fighting high-profile crime, which emerged during urban riots of the 1960s and 1970s, and return to a role more akin to the community vigilante or night watchman. The authors readily admit that informal police control is difficult to reconcile with legal due process, and that there is no way to ensure, inside their experiment, that police do not become agents of neighborhood bigotry. Still, their strategies would be readily incorporated into municipal and national police structures during the 1990s, and the language of community policing echoes in debates about law enforcement that persist to this day.