March 30, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 13

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    Study authors find cracks in ‘broken-windows’

    By Rob McManamy
    News Office

    Wading deep into a controversy already boiling in Denver and Boston, Bernard Harcourt, Professor in the Law School, will publish this month a provocative new study that finds no evidence to support the popular theory that “broken-windows” policing actually reduces crime.

    Titled Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City, and a Five-City Social Experiment, the study is co-authored by Jens Ludwig, associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. It appears in the latest issue of the University of Chicago Law Review. The article also can be read online at: http://lawreview. uchicago.edu/issues/archive/v73/winter/14.Harcourt.pdf

    Harcourt and Ludwig’s research findings directly challenge the central premise put forth by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in their influential 1982 article that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. The article suggested that targeting minor disorder, such as broken windows, could help reduce more serious crime. Now, more than 20 years later, the three most populous cities in the United States, New York, Chicago, and most recently, Los Angeles, all have adopted at least some aspect of Wilson and Kelling’s theory, primarily through more aggressive enforcement of minor misdemeanor laws. And this year, Boston and Denver both have signed on.

    But Harcourt and Ludwig argue that the popular crime-fighting strategy “is, well, wrong,” said Harcourt. “We don’t deny that the ‘broken windows’ idea seems compelling. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work as claimed in practice.”

    Some policymakers believe broken-windows policing reduces serious crime because the idea seems so plausible, and because of a widely cited 2001 Manhattan Institute study of New York City Police Department data collected by Kelling and a graduate student. Kelling found that the NYPD precincts that had received the greatest dose of broken-windows policing in the 1990s also experienced the largest declines in crime.

    “But we found that the precincts that had been targeted for the most broken- windows policing also were the same ones hit hardest by the crack-cocaine epidemic that caused New York City’s homicide rate to soar from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s,” noted Harcourt. “Everywhere crime skyrocketed as a result of crack, there were eventual declines once the crack epidemic ebbed. This is true for police precincts in New York and for cities across the country.”

    Harcourt and Ludwig’s study demonstrates that the declines in crime observed in New York City in the 1990s are exactly what experts would have predicted from the rise and fall of the crack epidemic, with or without broken-windows policing initiatives.

    The pair also independently reviewed the empirical results of the “Moving to Opportunity” program, a social experiment underway in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Boston. As part of the program, some 4,600 low-income families living in high-crime public housing communities—characterized by high rates of social disorder—were randomly assigned housing vouchers to move to less disadvantaged and less disorderly communities. Using official arrests and self-report surveys, the crime rates among those who moved and those who did not remained the same.

    “The results are clear, though disappointing: moving people to communities with less social or physical disorder on balance does not lead to reductions in their criminal behavior,” noted Harcourt. “Neighborhood disorder does not seem to have an effect on criminal behavior.”

    So, prioritizing broken-windows policing in the current fiscal climate for most cities simply does not make sense, Harcourt and Ludwig concluded. “In our opinion, focusing on minor misdemeanors is a diversion of valuable police funding and time from what really seems to help—targeted police patrols against violence, gang activity and gun crimes in the highest-crime ‘hot spots,’” said Harcourt. “It’s not about being pro-cop or anti-cop. It’s about using police officer time and limited resources intelligently.”