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Before the development of theories that focused on a lack of civil order in communities, law enforcement agencies tended to focus more on serious crimes. The police force, for example, would attend to those crimes which were considered to be more severe and consequential for the victim, such as rape, murder, robbery, and so on. However, the broken windows theory, which was an academic proposition of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in the year 1982, took a different view. This theory postulated that violent crime was a consequence of a long chain of events. According to the theorists, the crime occurred as a result of disorder and that if disorder were done away with, the same would significantly reduce the rates of serious crimes.
Additionally, the theory posits that the existence of disorder in society instills fear in the mind of citizens who are usually convinced that their neighborhoods are generally unsafe. The withdrawal from the community ends up eliminating social control, which would formerly keep crime in check. Disorder, therefore, leads to crime, and crime results in more crime and further disorder.
Research shows that there are two types of disorder which can cause crime in society; physical disorder and social disorder. Physical disorder is evidenced by vacant buildings, broken windows, abandoned vehicles, and dirty streets. Social disorder, on the other hand, is evidenced by practices such as noisy neighborhoods and groups of young people congregating in the corners of the streets. There is a fragile line that exists between crime and disorder because some experts classify acts such as drug dealing and prostitution as a disorder while others classify them as crimes. The broken windows theory is considered as an effective crime-control strategy. This is primarily because it is way easier to control disorder than it is to deal with the greater evil, which is occasioned by severe crime.
An example of broken window policing in practice was in the city of New York in the 1990s. The policing strategy utilized was that the police focused on small offenses such as turnstile jumping on the highway and smoking of marijuana in public. This policing strategy approach resulted in remarkable success as the city experienced a significant drop in the crime rate. However, crime also reduced generally in the US, even in areas where this policing strategy was not deployed. This, therefore, resulted in the controversy on the positive and negative aspects of this law enforcement approach.
The benefits of utilizing the broken windows theory include the reduction of crime rates and data-driven approaches. Addressing small issues usually helps to reduce the rate of crimes in the society, as was proven by the case study of New York. Additionally, some criminals who are typically arrested for misdemeanors end up being the ones who are wanted for more significant crimes that they committed. This leads to the conclusion that, indeed, doing away with disorder in the community has a positive impact in terms of reduction of the crime rate in neighborhoods. This theory has also led to statistical driven approaches to crime prevention. Many police departments now allocate funds for the broken windows approach to crime prevention. In this approach, police officers usually, utilize available data in addition to what they observe along the streets to prevent crimes rather than deal with the bigger problem of controlling it once it has become rampant.
However, with time, there are many concerns that have been raised concerning broken windows policing. Some of these include the definition of disorder, training of the police force as well as misconduct by the police. The definition of disorder is a big issue because what one may consider as a disorder is not necessarily what another person may recognize the same. Studies have also shown that the very basis of crime is private conflict rather than social confusion. This, therefore, questions the whole idea of having policing mechanisms that are based on the disorder in society. Another concern was the fact that this policing strategy contributed to the deterioration of the relationship between police officers and the communities. The reason was that the people felt that the police spent too much time dealing with petty offenses. These complaints raised issues of adequate police training; the police force could not be deployed to go out and restore order in the community without any guidelines that regulate their work.
There are also arguments that broken window policing gives police officers a more extensive range of authority to detain people because they are granted the mandate to maintain law and order. Such police misconduct results in too many summonses being issued for petty offenses such as disorderly conduct, urinating publicly, rowdy drinking and owning small amounts of marijuana. The argument here was that this policing strategy did not precisely eradicate crime but targeted minor offenders leaving the society at the mercy of heinous crimes.
The debate concerning this policing strategy is quite controversial; while its proponents maintain that the police are only enforcing law and order, opponents believe that the approach goes too far, especially in minority communities.
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