AT A MEETING of the world's top cops in San Francisco today, the first topic on the agenda will be whether the "broken windows" theory on which Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has built his career is, in fact, an effective crime-fighting technique.
The theory was first articulated by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the Atlantic magazine in 1982. They argued that minor forms of disorder -- such as graffiti, litter, panhandling and prostitution -- will, if left unattended, result in an increase in serious criminal activity. Clean up minor disorder, they said, and a reduction in major crime will follow.
Lately, "broken windows" policing has returned to the front burner because of two new initiatives. Two months ago, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced a crackdown on such minor misdemeanor offenses as loud house parties, public drinking and improperly disposed trash. "For those of us familiar with the 'broken window' theory and reality," Menino said, "we know that these kinds of community-disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow."
At about the same time, Kelling was on hand to help launch a "broken windows" program in Denver's Westwood area, which local officials said would target graffiti removal, among other things.
Bratton has been on board the "broken windows" bandwagon for many years, since long before he arrived in L.A. As New York's police chief in the mid-1990s, he implemented a quality-of-life initiative to much acclaim, and he campaigned for the top job in L.A. on a "broken windows" platform.
In October 2002, after being selected to head the Los Angeles Police Department, Bratton told the media he would "make graffiti a top priority for all officers." Bratton identified L.A.'s skid row as one of the main areas where he would target and test "broken windows" policing, and since then, he has aggressively enforced misdemeanor violations in L.A.'s central district.
Over the years, however, "broken windows" policing has been controversial. Many reputable social scientists have suggested that there is no reliable evidence of a "broken windows" effect whatsoever. But Bratton hasn't wavered -- arguing instead, according to the Boston Globe, that the academics are simply revealing an anti-cop bias.
"What particularly galls police," Bratton wrote in a National Review Online article he co-authored with Kelling this year, "is that ivory-tower academics -- many of whom have never sat in a patrol car, walked or bicycled a beat, lived in or visited regularly troubled violent neighborhoods or collected any relevant data of their own 'on the ground' -- cloak themselves in the mantle of an empirical 'scientist' and produce 'findings' indicating that 'broken windows' has been disproved. Worse, they allege that police have had little to do with the declines in crime."
On this score, Bratton is just flat wrong. The debate about maintaining order is not about being pro-cop or anti-cop. Nor is it about an anti-policing bias in the social sciences. It's about relying on solid empirical evidence to allocate scarce police resources more intelligently. It's about smart policing.
Everybody agrees that police matter. The question is how to allocate scarce police dollars. Should cops be arresting, processing and clogging the courts with minor-disorder offenders or focusing on violence, as well as gang and gun crimes, with the help of increased computerized crime tracking? The evidence, in my view, is clear: Focusing on minor misdemeanors is a waste.
I recently concluded a study with my colleague, Jens Ludwig, of 1990s New York crime data. We found no evidence for the proposition that disorder causes crime or that "broken windows" policing reduces serious crime. Rather, the pattern of crime reduction across New York precincts during the 1990s, when Bratton was first experimenting with "broken windows" policing, is entirely consistent with what statisticians call "mean reversion." Those precincts that experienced the largest drops in crime in the 1990s were the ones that experienced the largest increases in crime during the city's crack epidemic of the mid- to late-1980s. What goes up must come down -- and it would have come down even if New York had not embarked on its quality-of-life initiative.