What Is Policing For?

George Kelling’s and James Q. Wilson’s famous and influential “Broken Windows” article raises a question more relevant today than when the article appeared in the Atlantic in 1982: What is policing for? Law enforcement, or community order? The two aren’t the same.

They ask, “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?” And they point out, “Over the past two decades, the shift of police from order-maintenance to law enforcement has brought them increasingly under the influence of legal restrictions, provoked by media complaints and enforced by court decisions and departmental orders.”

This marks a departure from traditional policing: “For centuries, the role of the police as watchmen was judged primarily not in terms of its compliance with appropriate procedures but rather in terms of its attaining a desired objective.” Back then, the police’s “means were the same as those the community itself would employ, if its members were sufficiently determined, courageous, and authoritative. Detecting and apprehending criminals, by contrast, was a means to an end, not an end in itself; a judicial determination of guilt or innocence was the hoped-for result of the law-enforcement mode.” Thus, “Until quite recently in many states, and even today in some places, the police made arrests on such charges as ‘suspicious person’ or “vagrancy” or ‘public drunkenness’ – charges with scarcely any legal meaning.”

No doubt there were abuses of authority, which the new law-bound mode of policing was meant to curb. But this shift also changes the very definitions of police conduct: “Once we begin to think of all aspects of police work as involving the application of universal rules under special procedures, we inevitably ask what constitutes an ‘undesirable person’ and why we should ‘criminalize’ vagrancy or drunkenness.” 

With law moving in a “utilitarian” direction, we are left doubting whether “any behavior that does not ‘hurt’ another person should be made illegal.” But this has a negative impact on neighborhoods: “Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.”

Police feel that their hands are tied, become frustrated, and they and the residents of a neighborhood conclude that the place is ungovernable: “Though the police can obviously make arrests whenever a gang member breaks the law, a gang can form, recruit, and congregate without breaking the law. And only a tiny fraction of gang-related crimes can be solved by an arrest; thus, if an arrest is the only recourse for the police, the residents’ fears will go unassuaged. The police will soon feel helpless, and the residents will again believe that the police ‘do nothing.’ What the police in fact do is to chase known gang members out of the project. In the words of one officer, ‘We kick ass.’ Project residents both know and approve of this. The tacit police-citizen alliance in the project is reinforced by the police view that the cops and the gangs are the two rival sources of power in the area, and that the gangs are not going to win.”

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