While major crimes capture the headlines, minor offenses (and even more minor norm violations that fall short of legal offenses) are much more common. And despite being minor, the experience of them can be uncomfortable, annoying, offensive, or even scary. This set of facts ...
This is the accepted version of a chapter in a forthcoming handbook: Drakulich, Kevin M. and Cassidy Pereira*.
“Disorder, Incivilities, and Broken Windows.”
The Handbook on Cities and Crime
, edited by Dietrich Oberwittler and Rebecca Wickes. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
While major crimes capture the headlines, minor offenses (and even more minor norm violations that fall short of legal offenses) are much more common. And despite being minor, the experience of them can be uncomfortable, annoying, offensive, or even scary. This set of facts led to a seemingly counterintuitive insight: that more minor crimes, by being more common, may have an outsized effect on how people experience and think about crime in their communities.
For this reason, these instances of physical and social disorder—think graffiti, trash, and disrepair; rowdy teenagers, public drinking, and unhoused people—have long been of interest to researchers and policymakers. One perspective on disorder has drawn substantial attention, having significant impacts on policing policy and practice globally: Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) conjecture that disorder, if left unchecked, can lead to more serious crime. Evidence has not tended to support this supposition, and researchers have criticized the theory and also drawn attention to the substantial harms caused by policing practices inspired by it.
However, there was interest in the idea of disorder before broken windows and it remains an interesting area of study outside of this narrow scope. It raises key questions about how we see the neighborhoods that we live in and move through and the complicated interplay of perceptions and realities. It links to a politics and public discourse that has amplified the former over the latter. And it sheds light on one of the complicated mechanisms producing, reinforcing, and exacerbating inequalities—particularly racial inequalities—across communities.
Although New York City looms symbolically over research on disorder, work on disorder in an international context—particular in Europe and Australia—has not only confirmed but extended a critical perspective on the meaning and role of disorder (e.g. Hoeben et al., 2018; Janssen et al., 2022; Wickes & Mazerolle, 2022; Wickes et al., 2013).
We begin with an overview of some of the historical theorizing on disorder before outlining the broken windows perspective and highlighting the main criticisms of it. We then provide an overview of the key theoretical, definitional, and methodological issues facing any research on disorder. We then summarize findings from some of the key questions investigated in the voluminous literature on disorder. After an overview of different policies intended to address disorder, we conclude with a discussion of the politics of disorder, which are critically important for understanding why disorder remains a consequential social issue.
In the 1970s and 1980s, as deindustrialization, the flight of resources to the suburbs, and segregation combined to create substantial concentrations of socio-economic disadvantage in particular urban communities (Massey & Denton, 1993; W.J. Wilson, 1987), sociologists and criminologists turned their attention to physical and social disorder in these spaces. This work often highlighted the disjuncture between reality and perceptions of neighborhoods. Hunter (1978) notes the preponderance of fear of victimization over actual victimization. Drawing on work theorizing relations in public from a symbolic interaction perspective (Becker & Horowitz, 1971; Goffman, 1971), Hunter (1978) suggests that violations of expected behavior in public encounters, along with signs of the physical residue of the disorderly actions of other, may give residents the impression of a loss of civil society. Critically, these social and physical ‘incivilities’ are more frequently experienced and accessible than evidence of more serious crimes, leading to the possibility that people may use these minor infractions to make inferences about the likelihood of more serious crimes in the local area and a broader sense that residents may have lost control of an area (Garofalo & Laub, 1978; Hunter, 1978; Lewis & Maxfield, 1980; Lewis & Salem, 1986). This work links the experience of these incivilities to a kind of ontological insecurity (Giddens, 1991), rooted in fears of both local and broader social changes, even as perceptions of these changes do not always line up well with reality (Hunter, 1978; Sampson, 2009; Sennett, 1970).
Although Hunter (1978) and Sampson (2009) both place the theoretical origins of disorder in the Chicago School, Chicago School researchers tended to undertheorize or minimize the role of race and racism (Morris, 2015). Du Bois’s (1899) foundational urban sociological study of Philadelphia raises other ideas about the origins of concerns about disorder, specifically linking them to the discomfort of white residents at the social gathering of (predominantly enslaved) Black residents. Du Bois (1899) begins his ‘history of Negro Crime in the city’ with a 1693 ordinance against “the tumultuous gatherings of the Negroes of the towne of philadephia, on the first dayes of the weeke” (pp. 235-236), designating a night in jail without food or water and a morning public whipping as the punishment. A similar ordinance in 1732 was drafted in response to “the frequent and tumultuous meetings of the Negro Slaves, especially on Sunday, Gambling, Cursing, Swearing, and committing many other disorders”—a similar 1738 ordinance mentions “disorderly doings” a 1741 ordinance “disorderly persons” (Du Bois, 1899, p. 236). Later, as Black Americans move to Philadelphia in greater numbers fleeing post-Reconstruction racial violence in the south, renewed interest in the disorderly behavior of Black Philadelphians appears. This suggests a different source, meaning, and consequence of perceptions of disorder, in which disorder is racialized and perceptions of disorder are intimately linked to a perceived threat and a desire for racial control. It also points to a long tradition of policies purportedly designed to address disorder masking mechanisms of racial control.
One perspective has dominated discussions of disorder in the academic and also policy and practice realms over the last several decades. Wilson and Kelling (1982) posited that neglecting to repair one broken window signifies a lack of control in the community which can attract violent offenders. The article, published in the Atlantic Monthly, did not present original empirical support for the thesis, but draws on Zimbardo’s (1969) experiment in which cars are abandoned in two neighborhoods and observed to see if local residents vandalize them. While the car in the Bronx is vandalized immediately (although notably by a well-dressed family), the car in Palo Alto sits untouched until the researchers damage the car, which opens the car to further damage by passers-by. Wilson and Kelling (1982) use this experiment as a basis for their argument that disorder that goes unrepaired is a driver for violent crime by signaling to potential offenders that the neighborhood lacks the ability to maintain control of their space. Ansfield (2020), however, points out that this misrepresents Zimbardo’s (1969) experiment in critical ways that cast doubt on the mechanism proposed by Wilson and Kelling (1982): the car was actually moved to the Stanford campus and damaged in primary ways by Zimbardo’s own students.
Although Wilson and Kelling (1982) do not specify a formal model in this initial statement, subsequent work has built on their implied model to develop two perceptual pathways by which disorder may influence crime. First, by making residents less likely to engage in informal social control through increases in fear of crime or reduced neighborhood attachment (e.g. O’Brien et al., 2014). And second, by encouraging potential offenders through perceptions of lax normative controls—a cross-norm inhibition effect (e.g. Keizer et al., 2008).
Importantly, Wilson and Kelling (1982) advocate for the police to remedy and regain control of disorderly neighborhoods. Their core policy proposal argued that police be given the discretion and authority to aggressively police disorderly areas in the efforts to reduce violent crime rates and community fear of crime to regain control. Also importantly, Wilson and Kelling (1982) downplay the potential role of racial bias, implying that race may not be relevant when the police are responding to the will of the community who may or may not share racial identities with those targeted by disorder policing, and advocate police training (e.g. Harcourt, 2001).
The idea was quickly picked up by practitioners and policy makers. In the early 1990s jurisdictions such as the New York Police Department adopted the Quality-of-Life Initiative, and Chicago’s Police Department enacted the anti-gang loitering ordinance (Hartcourt, 2001). New York’s quality of life initiative stressed the use of aggressive policing tactics to enforce misdemeanor laws against ‘quality of life’ offenses, some of which included public urination, public drinking, graffiti painting, and prostitution (Hartcourt, 2001). Chicago’s anti-gang loitering ordinance forbids people from congregating in public spaces for no apparent reason. The enactment of this order-maintenance policing yielded dramatic arrest rates, from 1993-1995 Chicago PD arrested over 42,000 people, and from 1994-1998 NYPD arrested between 40,000 and 85,000 adults despite the decline in crime rates (Hartcourt, 2001). Crime dropped as the programs were implemented, greatly raising the profile of the policies—though, as many have pointed out, crime also dropped nearly everywhere at the same time, and most places had not implemented these disorder policing practices (Harcourt, 2001).
It was not long after the introduction of broken windows theory that scholars began to raise key theoretical, empirical, and policy concerns about broken windows theory. Theoretically, critics asked about the definition of disorder and who gets to determine it (e.g. Harcourt, 2001). Empirically, researchers raised issues about broken windows as a theory of crime (Sampson, 2012a; Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999). Finally, they raised questions as to whether the disorder policing practices inspired by the perspective were appropriate, effective, and just (Fagan & Davies, 2000; Gelman et al., 2007; Harcourt, 2001). Each of these are discussed further below.
Additionally, although New York City looms symbolically over research on disorder, work on disorder in an international context—particular in Europe and Australia—has not only confirmed but extended a critical perspective on the meaning and role of disorder, and is integrated into this discussion (e.g. Hoeben et al., 2018; Janssen et al., 2022; Wickes & Mazerolle, 2022; Wickes et al., 2013).
Several critical issues, none wholly resolved, face research on disorder generally.
Perhaps the most fundamental and critical issue facing research on disorder is what, specifically, constitutes disorder (e.g. Kubrin, 2008; W. Skogan, 2015). No coherent and comprehensive definition and operationalization exists. Empirical studies have used a wide variety of different kinds of offenses, roughly grouped into examples of physical and social disorder, a distinction with its own definitional questions, as physical disorder is sometimes simply the ‘physical residue’ of social disorder (Hunter, 1978). In practice, the types of disorder included in studies often seems to depend on the measures available. They range from detailed and nuanced categories drawn from observations to cruder measures derived from administrative housing and other data or measures of misdemeanor arrests (which of course are measures of disorder enforcement rather than disorder itself).
But there is a deeper theoretical question about what types of actions, specifically, constitute disorder, and whether they always constitute disorder or only do so under specific circumstances. Are a group of neighbors gathering in a public space on a summer day disorderly because they have open beers with their hamburgers? Are a group of rambunctious teenagers in a park disorderly? Would the judgement be different in these cases depending on the race and class composition of the neighborhood, the neighbors, and the teens? This definitional issue is really an issue of power: who gets to decide what is disorderly? In practice the answer is often the police, who hold extraordinary discretionary power, particularly for minor offenses. Wilson and Kelling (1982) attempt to shift focus from the police by suggesting the community holds this power and the police respond to it, which is problematic in at least two ways. First, it assumes the police listen to and serve the will of the community equally across all types of communities (see, e.g., Gau & Pratt, 2010). Second, it ignores division, power, and control dynamics within communities, and the ways in which the police are weaponized by the privileged against the marginalized.
From the beginning, research in this area has suffered from indeterminacy and disagreement about whether the subjects of this work are objective or subjective. Does it matter that an area is disorderly in an objective sense, or just that people believe it to be disorderly? A variety of work in this area, including Wilson and Kelling (1982) and earlier work on incivilities (e.g. Hunter, 1978) appear to imply that it is people’s perceptions or judgements of disorder that matter, but use examples of objective instances of disorder without discussion of whether everyone would agree that the instance is disorderly. Research comparing objective and subjective measures of disorder suggests this is an issue: the two are not strongly related relative to other factors that predict perceptions of disorder, and perceptions vary widely even within the same places (Drakulich, 2013; Hinkle & Yang, 2014; Piquero, 1999; Sampson, 2009; Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004).
This raises a second question: if perceptions of disorder are not strongly rooted in the actual presence of disorder, what are the cognitive processes that determine these perceptions? It appears perceptions of disorder are rooted in negotiated collective understandings of disorder that are variable across context (e.g. Sampson, 2009). But people also differ substantially in their responses to the same instances of ‘disorder,’ with some positive and pro-social interpretations—such as graffiti as an indicator of a creative community (Wallace & Louton, 2018). Social disorder in particular appears to generate a diversity of interpretations (Konkel et al., 2019; Yang & Pao, 2015). People may not distinguish perceptions of disorder and crime (Gau & Pratt, 2008). Additionally, as we discuss in the next section, race and racial attitudes appear to be primary factors in shaping perceptions of disorder.
As a result, research on disorder has implemented a wide diversity of approaches to measuring disorder. Perceptions of disorder are captured in surveys and interviews. Interviewer perceptions of disorder or aggregated perceptions of disorder are sometimes used as measures of area conditions that are independent or semi-independent of individual perceptions (e.g. Brunton-Smith & Sturgis, 2011; Mellgren et al., 2010). Objective disorder is often captured through administrative data or systematic observation—though the former may be vulnerable to systemic and institutional biases while the latter is subject to observer bias (Hoeben et al., 2018). Advancing technologies have provided new opportunities for the observational methods, ranging from in-person notes to video-recorded street faces and now even to drones (which, as Grubesic and colleagues (2018) point out, provides a panoptic perspective). Photo studies link the two in trying to understand how people understand potential objective signs of disorder (e.g. O’Brien et al., 2014; Wallace & Louton, 2018; Wallace & Schalliol, 2015). 311 calls may provide a measure of disorder and also of community stewardship of disorder (O’Brien et al., 2015; O’Brien & Sampson, 2015; Wheeler, 2018).
The question of objective versus subjective phenomena also extends to the consequences of disorder. Similar to the question of disorder, early work seems to focus on the consequences for perceptions of crime—and broader perceptions of the community—but also seems to suggest this will be relevant to actual crime in the community, potentially at least in part through determining the responses of residents to this disorder (Skogan, 1990; Wilson & Kelling, 1982). This raises a parallel set of questions about the factors and cognitive processes relevant to perceptions of crime, processes that also seem more rooted in racial and social factors than the actual presence of crime (Drakulich, 2012, 2013; Drakulich & Siller, 2015; Quillian & Pager, 2001).
As implied in the previous sections, one of the most critical questions about the distribution of disorder, perceptions of disorder, and the enforcement of disorder, is the degree to which the very notion of disorder is racialized. There is evidence that race is central to understanding how people perceive disorder. Most centrally, research comparing systematic neighborhood estimates of perceived disorder and systematic social observations (SSO) of objective disorder find that the racial composition—particularly the proportion of residents who are Black—is a substantially better predictor of perceptions of disorder than is the actual presence of disorder (Drakulich, 2013; Sampson, 2009; Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004). In other words, the racial composition of a community appears central to understanding whether residents believe that community to be disorderly. The same pattern appears with the role of non-White or foreign-born populations outside of the US (Janssen et al., 2022; Wickes et al., 2013). Similarly, even in the absence of people in photographs of disorder, people’s interpretations of disorder are often racialized (Wallace & Louton, 2018).
The reasons for this are complicated. Pointing out that the presence of more Black neighbors increases perceptions of disorder for both Black and White residents, Sampson (2009; and see Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004) proposes a general historical stigma that produces a kind of statistical discrimination affecting all people. The same studies, however, also reveal that White respondents perceive more disorder overall in those communities. As Drakulich and Siller (2015) point out, the similar size of the effect does not indicate that it means the same thing for members of different racial groups with different experiences and histories. In general, Black Americans are more likely to see the role of a history of slavery and discrimination as more relevant to present-day inequalities, while White Americans are more likely to minimize these factors and are more likely to possess anti-Black stereotypes and affect (e.g. Bonilla-Silva, 2018). These anti-Black views, in turn, are relevant to how people see their communities, particularly in the presence of larger numbers of Black neighbors (Drakulich, 2012; Drakulich & Siller, 2015). Similarly, the link between living near foreign-born neighbors and perceptions of disorder appears strongest among those with xenophobic views (Janssen et al., 2022).
Finally, the racialization of disorder can be seen in the enforcement of disorder by the police. Aggressive disorder policing strategies primarily target communities on the basis of race and class rather than disorder or crime (Fagan & Davies, 2000; Fradella et al., 2021; Gelman et al., 2007).
Like crime, disorder may be concentrated at particular places, including vacant buildings and problem properties (Wallace & Schalliol, 2015), raising questions about the appropriate scale at which to examine disorder and crime. Similarly, different factors could be relevant to perceptions of crime at different spatial scales, though race and ethnicity appear to matter at multiple scales (Hipp, 2007). At broader levels, differential perceptions among neighbors could reflect perceptual biases or could reflect experiences in different parts of a broader neighborhood. Even more broadly, incidences of disorder and crime in surrounding communities may also be important (Boggess & Maskaly, 2014).
If disorder does matter, the final critical question is the appropriate response to it. As described above, Wilson and Kelling (1982) advocate for a central role of the police in these efforts, doing things ostensibly at the behest of the community, and often enforcing informal rather than formal rules in ways that “probably would not withstand a legal challenge.” Over time, ‘Terry stops’—which allow officers wider discretion in who to stop based on a lower evidentiary standard that often does not withstand legal challenges (e.g. Rosenthal, 2010)—become a central tool for disorder policing, along with zero-tolerance efforts aimed at minor offences (Silverman & Della-Giustina, 2001). However, this is clearly not the only possible approach to addressing disorder—as we discuss below, it is not even the only possible approach to addressing disorder that involves the police.
Identifying appropriate solutions for disorder necessarily involves a consideration of the sources of disorder. Wilson and Kelling (1982) appear uninterested in investigating the possible sources of disorder, or their potential connections to the socio-economic structure of neighborhoods, and in so doing ignore a substantial history of communities research suggesting that both disorder and crime are rooted in the unequal distribution of resources and privileges across space.
Skogan (1990) provides the first empirical support for the broken windows proposition that disorder leads to more serious crime, linking disorder to robberies. However, Harcourt (2001) disputes Skogan’s (1990) findings in a reanalysis of the same data, finding that disorder was not associated with four of five types of neighborhood victimization (Skogan only presents the fifth), and that even this relationship is based on questionable data and is the product of a small number of outliers. Skogan (1990) also employs a perceived measure of disorder drawn from a survey, which, as described above, does not appear to capture well the actual distribution of disorder across communities (e.g. Drakulich, 2013; Sampson, 2009).
Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) avoid biases associated with perceived disorder through employing a systematic social observation of disorder in places. Their results suggest a modest association between disorder and crime that largely disappears when controlling for neighborhood structural characteristics and collective efficacy, concluding that both disorder and crime may be the product of the same social conditions and processes. Similarly, St. Jean (2008) finds that the level of physical disorder is not significantly associated with narcotic violations, robbery, or battery. St. Jean (2008) also provides an account of an offender's point of view in disorderly communities and concludes that drug dealers do not consider the dilapidation of buildings to be a predictor of their opportunity to sell drugs.
Keizer et al. (2008) find support for the cross-norm inhibition effect in a field experiment, though the study has some methodological issues (Lanfear et al., 2020; Wicherts & Bakker, 2014) and attempted replications have not been fully successful (Keuschnigg & Wolbring, 2015; Volker, 2017). Utilizing the Moving to Opportunity experiment, Harcourt and Ludwig (2006) find no support for a disorder-crime relationship.
Overall, O’Brien and colleagues (2019) conduct a meta-analysis of existing research and find no consistent evidence that disorder causes increased offending or aggressive behavior within places.
In addition to examining the disorder and crime link, researchers have investigated whether disorder (perceived or observed) causes fear of crime or reduced community attachment or involvement.
Both early work on incivilities and broken windows theory identify fear of crime as a key product of disorder (Hunter, 1978; Wilson & Kelling, 1982). A long history of scholarship reports that perceptions of physical or social disorder are associated with a fear of crime and perceptions of personal safety (e.g. Carter & Wolfe, 2021; Covington & Taylor, 1991; Brunton-Smith, 2011; Mellgren et al., 2010; Ren et al., 2019; Roccato et al., 2011; Ross & Jang, 2000; Scarborough et al., 2010; Skogan, 1990). Put simply, residents who perceive more disorder appear more fearful of being victimized and feel less safe in their neighborhoods. Respondents also report being more fearful in places that their interviewer perceives as disorderly (Brunton-Smith & Sturgis, 2011).
However, research in this area is subject to the theoretical, definitional, and operationalization concerns outlined above. What does it mean if people’s perceptions of local disorder are related to their perceptions of local crime? Are these perceptions even distinguishable (Gau & Pratt, 2008)? Drakulich (2013) finds that systematic observations of actual disorder are only associated with perceptions of disorder within communities when other factors like the racial composition are not included, and that perceptions of disorder but not actual disorder predict perceived crime. In fact both perceptions of disorder and perceptions of crime appear to be reactions to the racial composition of communities (Drakulich, 2012, 2013; Drakulich & Siller, 2015; Quillian & Pager, 2001; Sampson, 2009; Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004).
Additionally, perceptions of police performance and legitimacy may also influence perceptions of disorder (Carter & Wolfe, 2021; Drakulich, 2013; Rodrigues, 2006; Scott, 2001). Although disorder policing efforts are geared in part to addressing neighborhood fears by reducing disorder, the aggressive enforcement of minor crimes, and the exposure to large numbers of neighborhood residents to stop-and-frisks that fail to produce evidence of wrong-doing, may erode confidence in the police and thus increase perceptions of crime (Silverman & Della-Giustina, 2001). These practices are likely one factor in a different kind of fear: fear of the police (Pickett et al., 2022).
Residents’ perceptions of disorder may also reduce citizen participation in crime prevention efforts (Michener, 2013; Ren et al., 2019) and lower neighborhood attachment (O’Brien et al., 2019). Some perceptions of disorder may spur individual action while simultaneously lowering perception of cohesion and collective efficacy (Hipp & Wickes, 2018; Wickes et al., 2018). Sampson (2009) assesses the durable inequality of neighborhoods, highlighting the impact perceptions of disorder have on neighborhoods, and finding that shared perceptions of disorder may impact a neighborhood’s future socio-economic trajectory. In that same study, though, Sampson (2009) finds that perceptions of disorder are much more highly related to the racial composition than actual disorder. As with fear of crime, then, there are questions about what it means for perceptions of disorder to influence other attitudes towards one’s neighborhood, and questions about what policy interventions would be appropriate if the relevant factor was perceived rather than objective disorder.
If disorder is a problem, what is to be done about it? Wilson and Kelling (1982) center a role for the police, but a variety of other kinds of policies have also been implemented and evaluated.
Several policing policies have been adopted to address disorder and crime, many of which present other challenges in communities experiencing disorder. ‘Terry stops,’ which allow police to stop and search people on the basis of reasonable suspicion rather than the more strict probable cause, were adopted by police to target disorder and quality of life offenses, in line with Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) suggestion to reduce police restrictions to allow the enforcement of less formal rules (Fradella & White, 2017). Targeted zero-tolerance enforcement of minor infractions fits with Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) call to target disorderly neighborhoods.
However, these styles of policing became concentrated in low income neighborhoods with larger numbers of Black and Latino residents (Fagan & Davies, 2000; Gelman et al., 2007). Jones-Brown and colleagues (2010) find that 87.6% of stops constituted innocent stops, inciting an increased distrust in police. Data finds that a disproportionate number of the stops consisted of Black and Latino residents, who made up 76% of all stops in Philadelphia, 75% of those stopped in Newark, and 72% in Chicago (American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, 2015; Fradella et al., 2021). Disorder policing ultimately led to an increase of police presence in these neighborhoods, threatening police legitimacy. Additionally, a focus on these high concentrations of disorder may be misplaced if the goal is to disrupt disorder before a tipping point is reached (Steenbeek & Kreis, 2015).
As Silverman and Della-Guistina (2001) suggest, these experiences can produce a fear of police, which in turn is relevant to people’s broader evaluations of the police (Block, 1971). In other words, disorderly policing strategies may heighten not only police illegitimacy in communities of color, but it also may account for an increase in their level of fear of police. Fear of police research has found that Black Americans are more fearful of encountering US law enforcement, which may be partly due to intimidation, negative encounters and mistreatment (Cobbina-Dungy, 2021; Jones, 2017). They also do not appear to be effective.
Other policing strategies may be more effective. A meta-analysis found that community and problem-solving policing practices were associated with a significant but modest crime reduction effect, while aggressive order maintenance enforcement strategies did not (Braga et al., 2015). In general, strategies that focus on the root causes of local problems and collaborate with local community groups may be more effective (Braga et al., 2019). However, if the most effective policing strategies are those that have officers acting less in traditional policing roles and more like social workers, non-profits, and community groups, the natural question is why not have social workers, non-profits, and community groups take the lead in this work.
An alternative approach, one evoked by the broken windows moniker, is to address the disorder more directly. Efforts to prevent physical or social disorder from emerging already existed in a defensible space or environmental design approach (Jacobs, 1961; Newman, 1978). Reactive approaches have focused on cleaning graffiti and trash, and redeveloping or repurposing vacant buildings and lots and other problem properties. Graffiti and vacant lot clean ups may reduce disorder, crime rates, and make residents feel safer overall (Branas et al., 2018; Solomon, 2019).
Policies aimed at reducing physical disorder in neighborhoods also present limitations. Community members sometimes express concerns about their neighborhoods being gentrified, and the possibility of having to relocate (Solomon, 2019; Branas et al., 2018). These efforts may further entrench neighborhood segregation through gentrification (Branas et al., 2018). Thus a focus on physical disorder may benefit physical places but not the people who currently live in those places.
Fundamentally, both the actual and perceived distributions of disorder are rooted in social inequalities. Compounding socio-economic disadvantages and disinvestments in poor communities do produce real social problems (Peterson & Krivo, 2010; Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999; Skogan, 1990). Taylor (2001) suggests that economic decline rather than disorder is the root cause of neighborhood problems. Crutchfield (2014; and Drakulich et al., 2012) describes how social disorder or ‘situations of company’ emerge in places where un- and underemployment concentrate people with free time and little to lose, processes worsened by criminal justice system contact.
Inequalities also shape whether behavior is defined as disorderly. Definition of disorder may be structured by unequal access to private spaces (Sampson, 2009; Stinchcombe, 1963). In simple terms, is disorder simply poor people doing in public what rich people do in private?
Physical and place-based disorder programs can be effective but need to be enacted in ways that prevent gentrification and displacement (e.g. Branas et al., 2018). Policies focused on people, including work programs, increased socio-economic opportunities, and improved collective efficacy may be more promising (Harcourt, 2001; Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999; St. Jean, 2008). More broadly, addressing community-level inequalities generally and racial inequalities in particular will require more fundamental structural change (Peterson & Krivo, 2010). Local organizations and nonprofits—who often have valuable local connections to community members—may be key to helping to give communities voice and identify needs.
Given all of this, it is impossible to understand disorder or disorder policing outside of the public and political context. Despite a lack of evidence that disorder causes crime, signs of physical and social disorder remain the subject of fraught public discussion and are frequent fodder for political actors. Despite a lack of evidence that disorder policing solves crime, and despite a substantial accounting of the harms produced by the aggressive enforcement of minor crimes, this style of policing remains popular among police departments in the US and internationally, and retains support of substantial portions of the public.
Several broader political and social forces may be relevant to understanding disorder and disorder policing. First, Harcourt (2001) identifies a rhetorical alignment with a broader turn to the harm principle in the 1980s and 1990s as key to the success of these arguments despite the critical empirical evidence. This redefined the stigmatized victims of inequalities—those struggling with housing insecurity or drug or alcohol addiction, for instance—from merely inconvenient nuisances to the causal agents behind a spiral leading to more serious crime. Critically, this framing justifies a harsher response to this disorder than the acts themselves might suggest. The popularity of the argument may be found in this justification: it legitimizes a dislike of an uncomfortable experience as more consequential and helps neutralize concerns that aggressive approaches to addressing this disorder may be disproportionate to the harm caused by the actual disorderly actions.
Second, recognizing the inherent tensions between perceptions and realities, Samaha (2012) uses broken windows policing as an example to develop a theory of ‘regulation for the sake of appearance.’ This argument reflects some of Harcourt’s (2001) discussion of these policies as reflecting a non-universal aesthetic preference for order (which itself reflect some of Sennet’s (1970) discussion), but as Sampson (2012b) points out, it misses the degree to which perceptions of disorder are variable and racialized and misses the incredible harms caused by aggressively policing minor infractions.
Third, from the beginning criminological work on disorder has centered a fear of crime, what might more broadly be described as a kind of urban anxiety (Hunter, 1978; Wilson & Kelling, 1982). This urban anxiety is not necessarily rooted in the actual threat of serious victimization, but in an idealized notion of urban spaces rooted in the false memory of ‘purified communities’ (Sampson, 2009; Sennett, 1970) and in reactions to the perceived diversification of urban spaces and the perceived loss of a more homogenous communal life—a phenomena that combines elements of the discredited linear development model of community attachment (Kasarda & Janowitz, 1974) with work on the supposed negative consequences of ethnic diversity.
However, the social and political relevance of disorder may not come just from its links to these broader trends. Defining a neighborhood as disorderly is an active process participated in by political actors, developers and speculators, community residents (though not always democratically and equally), and the police. It is fundamentally an act of the social construction of a community or place (e.g. Suttles, 1972). Disorder is often framed specifically as a violation of the moral order in a process that means that some disordered places become stigmatized places, even as some residents contest the labels and the stigma (Douglas, 1966; J.N. Parker, 2018; Wacquant, 2008). As Sampson (2009) points out drawing on the notion of ecological contamination (Werthman & Piliavin, 1967; and Rios, 2011 discusses something similar from the perspective of the policed), there is a contextual effect here in which “all persons encountered in ‘bad’ neighbourhoods are viewed as possessing the moral liability of the neighbourhood itself” (p. 13). Most problematically, places and the people in them may be framed not just as suffering issues of disorder, but as deserving or having responsibility for those issues—an example of an attributional frame (Benford & Snow, 2000).
There are at least two reasons for these social constructivist efforts: spatial economic exploitation and social control. First, defining a place as disorderly produces real economic benefits for some parties. Political efforts by non-residents to redefine less wealthy neighborhoods as slums permits the public seizure of those spaces allowing private companies to benefit from their redevelopment and local governments to benefit from the increased tax revenues provided by wealthier residents (Gans, 1982). Residents’ fears of clean-up efforts and gentrification make sense in this context (Branas et al., 2018; Solomon, 2019). Real estate speculators have staged social disorder—notably racialized social disorder—in blockbusting efforts (e.g. Pattillo, 2000, p. 33). Landlords and owners have benefitted from burning properties—an extreme form of physical and social disorder—in economically disadvantaged communities (Ansfield, 2021). Parker (2018) describes how elites deploy signs of disorder to gain economic advantages, putting broken windows in service of the urban growth machine.
Second, assigning blame for the disorder—and the more serious crime it allegedly produces—justifies aggressive efforts, using the control capacity of the criminal justice system, to be used against disorderly people and places. As Simon (2009) notes, this is one of the most straightforward—but also damaging—methods for governing through crime. As described above, zero-tolerance and stop-and-frisk policies directly expose huge numbers of residents of specific neighborhoods to coercive police control. The social control efforts often reflect a specifically racial control (Wacquant, 2003), harkening back to Du Bois’s (1899) description of Philadelphia’s disorder ordinances in the late 1600s.
These sets of practices have several broader social consequences. First, although Broken windows efforts claim to operate at the behest of the community, they privilege a preference for a specific kind of order, and the preferences of a specific portion of the public (Harcourt, 2001; Sennett, 1970). Further, they privilege an ambiguous fear of disorder and crime—not the actual presence of disorder and crime—over the real harms caused by the aggressive police enforcement of minor crimes and the legitimate fears of the police engendered by these efforts. Second, they contribute to the broader problems caused by assigning the criminal justice system to manage the problems arising out of social inequalities (Wacquant, 2009). As Harcourt (2001) notes, they contribute to the very punitiveness they have sometimes been framed as the antidote to.
Finally, they contribute to—and are a tool for—the broader politics of racial control. There is a long history of attempts to rally political support in the face of civil rights movements by encouraging racialized concerns about urban crime and disorder and advocating aggressive law enforcement responses (Beckett & Sasson, 2004; Tonry, 2011). In the midst of a civil rights movement drawing attention to biased police practices like disorder policing, some Americans appeared to cheer on the racial control function of the police (Drakulich et al., 2020, 2021, 2022). Aggressive zero-tolerance police enforcement campaigns, concentrated in communities of color, thus represent one dimension of racial authoritarianism (C.S. Parker & Towler, 2019; Weaver & Prowse, 2020).
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