Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A fired-up principal with a revolutionary
educational philosophy takes over a failing inner-city public school, and turns
it around so impressively that before long it’s the the school that every parent
wants their kid to go to. We all know how this story ends. The principal encourages
everybody else to follow the revolutionary system, but somehow when people try
to put it into practice elsewhere, it never works quite as well.
As everybody knows, the dedication and enthusiasm of the principal and his
staff is usually much more important than whatever system they’re using. He
might believe wholeheartedly that it’s the system which is proving itself, but
there’s a world of difference between a dedicated group of teachers giving their
all to prove the success of a radical new pedagogic philosophy, and a worn-down
group of teachers being told to stop doing it this way, start doing it that
New York City knows the story very well, of course, which is why it has its
system of charter schools. New York is full of wonderful unique schools, but
no one’s trying to duplicate them.
And so to Broken Windows. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Rudy Giuliani and
Bill Bratton, full of crimefighting zeal, take over the NYPD with a revolutionary
philosophy. Crime comes down. So now Bratton is a huge
advocate of said philosophy, the Broken Windows theory. Critics, on the
other hand, say that correlation is not causation. Yes, crime came down in New
York City, but it came down everywhere. Or it came down because of the end of
the crack-crime epidemic. Or it came down because of the rise in abortions in
the early 1970s. Or it came down because New York City put more cops on the
beat in tough neighborhoods. Or some combination of all of the above.
Meanwhile, academics are studying the Broken Windows theory, doing things like
literally counting broken windows, and then taking polls which seem to show
that there’s no correlation between the number of broken windows and how "disordered"
people think a neighborhood is. Some of them are coming to the conclusion that
Broken Windows isn’t
The debate about Broken Windows is silly on both sides. Counting broken windows
doesn’t prove anything: the point about the theory is not so much that broken
windows get fixed, and much more that the police care that windows
are being broken in the first place. Meanwhile, Bratton resorts to ad hominem
attacks on his critics:
Many social scientists are wedded to the idea that crime is caused by the
structural features of a capitalist society — especially economic injustice,
racism, and poverty. They assume that true crime reduction can come only as
the result of economic reform, redistribution of wealth, and elimination of
poverty and racism.
It’s time, I think, to tone down the rhetoric and get much more pragmatic.
Crime fighting isn’t science, as Bratton comes close to admitting:
What particularly galls police about these critiques 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. Police don’t have
time for these virtual-reality theories; they do their work in the real world.
Which is why it’s ironic that Bratton himself clings to the idea that Broken
Windows has the status of empirical, scientific fact.
The way I see it, Broken Windows is just like the pedagogical theories in charter
schools. If you have a police chief who believes in it, and who can energise
his police force, and is backed up by the mayor, then it’s very likely that
crime will come down. But ultimately, that’s probably more a function of the
police chief and the mayor and the energised police force than it is a function
of the universal applicability of Broken Windows.