Broken Windows, Broken Lives
Social scientists and criminologists understand there exists an inverse relationship between crime rates and the lack of enforcement of criminal laws.
It’s called the Broken Windows Theory.
The criminological explanation of the social decline theory goes like this.
Signs of crime that are readily visible, indicative of civil disorder and anti-social behavior in urban areas, result in escalating crime rates.
Crime without penalties begets more crime. The failure to enforce minor criminal laws results in more violent crimes like murder, robbery, and assaults with deadly weapons.
In larger cities, where there is a certain level of anonymity, social norms are inferred by visual cues. Those signals include both a conscious and unconscious analysis of the risk of getting caught.
The general appearance of the community is an important signal regarding social norms and acceptable behavior.
The Broken Windows Theory stands for the precept that an ordered society (clean environment where broken windows are fixed) is well-monitored and one where criminal, anti-social behavior is not accepted.
Criminal behavior is addressed in a timely, effective fashion. Consequences are both very real and very likely.
Urban environments where there is visible litter, graffiti, and “broken windows” send the negative signal that the society is disorganized and/or not cared for.
As a result, the criminal element is emboldened, because there is little to no risk of being caught. Criminals infer the community is unwilling to defend itself.
That “defenselessness” is taken as vulnerability. Lack of community pride and cohesiveness further victimizes often already downtrodden neighborhoods.
The role of visible, consistent, and evenhanded law enforcement
Under the Broken Windows Theory, the regular, consistent enforcement of criminal laws, specifically even minor infractions, sets an important tone.
It establishes precedent and community standards. Crimes are addressed rather than ignored.
When and if the police force fails to enforce the Rule of Law, it doesn’t take long to see the inevitable result.
Charlotte is suffering a crime wave because of several fundamental flaws endemic to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, including but not limited to a:
- Community-wide, substantial decline in the overall number enforcement actions for
- Traffic Tickets
- DWI / DUI Charges
- Minor Drug Offenses
- Historical selective hyper-enforcement of laws upon a niche segment of society
- Historical non-enforcement of laws in affluent areas
- Historical under-reporting of property crimes
- B&E Motor Vehicle
- Business Property B&E
- Residential Property B&E
- Failure to properly train and support line-patrol officers
- Non-responsive, untimely 911 services
It’s About Privilege
As is the case with any sociological theory, there are certain strengths and weaknesses of the conclusions drawn therefrom.
The Broken Windows Theory (BWT) has a remarkable, historical flaw, although it’s not necessarily in the theory itself.
It has been villainized by social justice activists. That’s because the BWT has been used as the justification for trampling on individual civil liberties and rights.
The Nancy Reagan era “War on Drugs” is the unholy offspring of the Broken Windows Theory and selective law enforcement.
Progressive-minded, truly good people have had enough of New York City “stop-and-frisk” policies and uncontrolled police-state tactics that are both systemically and systematically applied in an unequal, unconstitutional basis.
At the same time, it need not be binary. There is a middle ground. At least that’s what he social scientists who came up with BWT idea think.
George Kelling and James Wilson: Conservative, Progressive, or Libertarian?
George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson published Broken Windows in the 1982 publication of The Atlantic Monthly.
Wilson and Kelling postulated low-level criminal offenses, and the symptomology of such crimes, create the appearance of unaccountability.
Failure to address issues enables, if not encourages, criminality and progressively worse anti-social behaviors.
Lack of accountability for minor acts of criminality result in spiking crime rates.
One of the most noticeable problems in repairing the “broken windows” in society is that all too often the “little offenses” of affluent white people are ignored.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, together with several other prosecutorial districts in North Carolina, own at least two decades of a well-documented history (supported by studies) of hyper-enforcement of traffic laws, DWI charges, and minor possession offenses against minorities.
Put simply, if you’re poor or a minority in certain areas of town, the chances of being pulled over and issued a citation are substantially higher than if you live within 2 miles of one of the affluent country clubs in Mecklenburg County.
The newly elected Sheriff of Mecklenburg County, Garry McFadden, seems to have recognized that fact. See the Charlotte Observer March 19, 2019 article, “It’s About Privilege.”
Appropriately, Kelling and Wilson appear to come from divergent political philosophies. That’s “appropriate” because managing crime and protecting the Rule of Law truly should not be the exclusive domain of a particular party.
That’s also true for the players in the system. Defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges dread rising crime statistics, each having their own reasons.
Until the Charlotte crime surge is addressed, things are not going to go well for any of us.
Charlotte Criminal Lawyers – Powers Law Firm PA
Bill Powers is the former president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and NBTA Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Defense.
Bill is available for media appearances and legal consultation on criminal justice issues. You may reach Bill directly by email at: Bill@CarolinaAttorneys.com