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  • The Broken Windows of the Bronx:Putting the Theory in Its Place
  • Bench Ansfield (bio)

Broken glass everywhere

—Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message"

Published to great fanfare and controversy in a 1982 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling's "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety" sent shockwaves through social scientific and law enforcement circles, rippling out to recast conversations on safety and crime across the United States and beyond.1 Three decades later, the rise of the Movement for Black Lives and a renewed campaign against police violence has forced broken windows policing into this country's critical crosshairs, eliciting a host of grassroots and scholarly condemnations of the decades-old paradigm of policing. These urgent lines of inquiry have exposed how broken windows policing has worked to extend the reach of the criminal legal system deeper into the daily lives of communities of color, "locat[ing] disorder within individuals" and "off-loading liability onto the bodies of the blamed."2 These critiques have demonstrated how, by criminalizing "small signs of 'disorder'" and projecting that disorder onto certain bodies, broken windows policing is both consistent with centuries-old patterns of policing and responsible for "vastly broaden[ing] the capacities of police both nationally and globally."3 Yet these critiques tend to leave untouched the historical and intellectual contingencies that propelled the theory into police precincts across the nation.4 In proceeding from the questions—How did the broken windows theory come to make sense? And in what spaces did it ground itself?—this essay attempts to push the critical conversation toward understanding and defanging the epistemological claims embedded in the writings of Wilson and Kelling. Wilson and Kelling's signal intervention revolved around their understanding of how signs of disorder, such as subway graffiti or public drunkenness, ostensibly push "law-abiding" residents toward vandalism and crime by reducing "community controls" against incivility. These signs of disorder further undermine community life by provoking "community fear" and suggesting [End Page 103] the possibility of more injurious crime. In short, fear of crime—aroused by relatively innocuous manifestations of disorder—becomes, in their writings, a primary cause of neighborhood deterioration. Accordingly, they argue that the function of police should be to cultivate a sense of safety, rather than fighting crime per se. And this perceived safety can only be achieved by eradicating the visual cues of disorder.5

Enter the broken window: "Social scientists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken."6 If Wilson and Kelling's article were to be condensed into one sentence, this could well be it, and they substantiate it by gesturing toward a supposed social scientific consensus around its validity. But in Wilson and Kelling's essay, only one empirical source shoulders the evidentiary burden of this assertion, of proving the connection between one broken window and "all the rest"—of proving, in other words, the connection between visual cues of disorder and neighborhood deterioration.7 This source is an experiment conducted fifteen years earlier in the Bronx and Palo Alto by the social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, best known for administering the Stanford prison experiment two years later.8 Wilson and Kelling recount Zimbardo's 1969 study in detail, and a close reading of the tensions between the Zimbardo experiment and Wilson and Kelling's essay casts new light on the genesis of the broken windows theory.

The present essay zeroes in on one chapter in the intellectual genealogy of the broken windows theory of policing, tracking the spaces and sources used by its authors.9 I argue that Wilson and Kelling manipulated and distorted the findings of prior studies to call forth a racialized image of urban decline, one that marshaled broken windows to stoke fears about the future of the US urban landscape. The terrain on which these fears took shape was the 1970s Bronx, which Wilson and Kelling deployed as a possible fate for all US cities. In fashioning their title out of the broken windows of the Bronx, they drew on...


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pp. 103-127
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