Sociologist Peter St. Jean challenges the broken windows theory of policing and social disorder by examining life in one Chicago neighborhood.
Broken windows have long been a visceral symbol of social disorder.
In early November 1938, the tw0-day, Nazi-sponsored rampage through Jewish neighborhoods, businesses and synagogues led to so much devastation that it was later called “Kristallnacht,” or the night of the broken glass.
In the 1980s, former Boston Police Department Deputy Superintendent William Johnston came to a home of Vietnamese immigrants who had had a rock thrown through a living room window.
“The rock shattered more than a window,” Johnston would say, in essence, later. “It also shattered a family.”
And for scholars James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in a famous 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, broken windows, and an active police and community response to them, provided the key to neighborhood crime reduction.
The “broken windows” theory of policing, held that a firm, vigilant and communal response to seemingly minor social disorder like a broken window could forestall later, more substantial problems like murders, drug dealing and the like.
According to the theory, criminals carefully monitored neighborhood landscapes, becoming emboldened by the perception that community members did not care, as evidenced by the lack of response to an event like a broken window.
Many in the policing community found the argument persuasive, and major districts across the country adopted this approach to policing.
But Peter K. B. St. Jean is not convinced.
His doctoral work at the University of Chicago examined and challenged the broken windows theory. His book, Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View is a useful if morally complicated look at the theory’s limitations and how criminal actually perceive their opportunities.
Pockets of Crimes is a converted dissertation, and its language bears the imprint of that type of work.
The prose is a bit leaden in places and one is more than aware that St. Jean has at many points in the work demonstrated his ability to fulfill necessary criteria for obtaining the degree. This lends the book a slightly stilted quality which interferes at times with the reader grappling with the substance of St. Jean’s argument.
The structure is similarly formulaic.
St. Jean spends the early chapters explaining broken windows theory and the importance of the community’s response-researchers call this ‘collective efficacy’-before going on to describe the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago where he conducted his research.
In on of the book’s most interesting, he then tests the theory against how criminals says they perceive the opportunities for drug dealing, robbery and battery by having them look at footage of the neighborhood and say how they evaluate the possibilities for crime. This final chapter contains before general policy and programmatic thoughts.
These necessary and somewhat unavoidable challenges aside, Pockets of Crime has a number of features to recommend it.
To begin, St. Jean’s work is a creative methodological stew. He uses quantitative data, his role as participant observer-a sociological staple-video footage of the community that is both a basis for the chapter in which he describes the community and conversation with criminals, and interviews with the people who commit the crimes.
I enjoyed this holistic approach because it led to a more textured analysis than a simple reliance on any single form of gathering information and making an argument. This approach also augurs well for St. Jean’s subsequent work.
The substance of his findings are provocative, too.
St. Jean advances the argument that broken windows theory is deficient in a number of important ways, not the least of which is that it fails to include the perspective of the criminal.
Many criminals, he maintains, do not attribute the lack of response to a broken window as a lack of caring, but rather to negligence from city authorities.
Even more central perhaps is his point that the individual space of the broken window must be considered within the larger context of the area in which it is located. Thus, broken windows on a busy street, for example, may be less attractive or inviting to a drug dealer or would-be robber than than a similarly broken window in an abandoned building.
This point is well taken, and is connected both to St. Jean’s insertion of the “criminal point of view” into the conversation and to the point he advances in the book’s final section that any discussion of community response to crimes must be within the context of broader economic development.
St. Jean closes the book with a quote from Icepick, a former murderer, pimp, drug dealer and one of his most active collaborators in the book:
“You know, I tell you, this is way it gone be unless they get some jobs up in her and help us strengthen families. How you gone try to take what I gat to feed my family when you took away the little jobs that I once had? What did you expect? Then you call me a monster, when you are the one that done made me so from the time I was little! How can you be so scared of something you done made?”
For St. Jean, Icepick’s thoughts, which are part of a larger excerpt from one of their many conversations, is an illustration of “the multifaceted character of the problem and possible solutions.”
Yet this formulation of shifting responsibility for individual action onto others seems a little too easy, especially when there are many, many residents who grew up in similar circumstances yet did not take the same path or make the same choices.
While St. Jean adds a valuable set of voices to the conversation, my sense is that he does not apply his same level of rigor to examining the thoughts and ideas of the criminal he cities as he does to other community members and elected officials.
This is an unfortunate omission that I have also noticed in some of Sudhir Venkatesh’s work, most notably in his third book, Gang Leader for A Day. While a different kind of book than Pockets of Crime, both are linked in my mind by relying excessively on the participant observer position as necessarily nonjudgmental.
While freely admitting that I am not a sociologist, I would argue that the work would be even stronger if St. Jean had pushed harder on the criminal’s choices, rather than moving to predictable if arguably necessary call for community economic development.
What do you think?
To what degree are we responsible for our choices?
Does being a sociologist mean a suspension of moral judgment?
Am I being unfair to St. Jean and Venkatesh?
How do criminals evaluate physical landscapes and what can be done to prevent them?