Does graffiti cause murder?

The widely hailed 'broken windows' theory may need fixing

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Led by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York City's police department waged successive battles during the 1990s against turnstile jumpers, panhandlers, and squeegee men. As crime rates plummeted, Giuliani's quality-of-life campaign got credit for making city streets and subways safer.

But in his new book, "Illusion of Order," Bernard Harcourt argues that the "broken windows" theory underlying New York's policing strategy doesn't deserve much praise.

James Q. Wilson and George Kelling first introduced the idea that targeting minor forms of disorder helps prevent bigger crimes in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article. They argued that signs of disorder such as broken windows or stumbling drunks lead law-abiding citizens to withdraw from the streets and send a signal that lawbreakers can operate freely.

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Politicians and police commanders alike reacted enthusiastically. In addition to New York's zero-tolerance policing, Chicago enacted ordinances targeting loiterers while other cities introduced teen curfews.

After the first decade of "broken windows" policing, several academics are now offering less rosy assessments. Harcourt, a University of Arizona law professor, presents a vigorous assault on the empirical, theoretical, and rhetorical evidence offered thus far.

He suggests that no studies establish a link between neighborhood disorder and crime victimization. Cities that adopted order-maintenance policing saw no greater drop in crime than cities that didn't. And he argues that a dip in the youth population, a booming economy, and more police on the streets deserve as much credit in New York as zero tolerance toward minor crimes.

Harcourt does credit order-maintenance policing with giving officers enhanced surveillance powers. Police officers now have legitimate reasons to search and run checks on persons committing minor offenses, and they obtain new informants in the process. But he criticizes aggressive "broken windows" policing as repressive and costly, citing the disproportionate number of minorities arrested and New York's rising police misconduct complaints.

"The desired order depends on a lot of disorder, irregularity and brutality," Harcourt writes. He devotes much space to a discussion of social-norm theory and the social meaning of disorder. He argues that the meaning of order and disorder is not as fixed as the order-maintenance approach suggests, and that the mechanisms used to punish crimes affect how we view perpetrators.

Harcourt attributes the popularity of order-maintenance policing to a shift in how we view the perpetrators of minor crimes. We once viewed drunks or beggars merely as society's losers, but now we consider them the agents of crime and neighborhood decline. Disorder by itself is now seen as harmful.

He argues that liberals view targeting minor crimes as an attractive alternative to incarceration. But really, Harcourt says, targeting misdemeanors "feeds into and produces a dramatic increase in detentions, arrests and criminal records."

He offers several alternatives to aggressive misdemeanor stops, frisks, and arrests. For instance, a subway turnstile that can't be jumped is one useful addition to New York's subways. Others - like the mime employed by a Spanish town to embarrass jaywalkers or legalized prostitution - are merely fanciful or politically impractical.

Offering a critique grounded equally in public policy and political theory, the book veers widely, from the writings of Michel Foucault and John Stuart Mill to a highly technical analysis of previous statistical studies. Harcourt wisely warns that some readers may want to skip ahead of a 30-page section laden with regression analysis. But taken together, his arguments offer a measured counterbalance to the gung-ho advocates of "broken windows" policing and a welcome warning about the limits of simplistic social policy.

Seth Stern graduated from Harvard Law School before joining the Monitor this fall.

Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing

By Bernard Harcourt Harvard U. Press 294 pp., $35

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