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George Kelling, one of the criminologists who introduced the theory of "broken windows" policing and changed the face of law enforcement in several major U.S. cities, died on Wednesday.
Kelling leaves behind an aggressive brand of policing that he eventually complained had morphed into something far beyond what he originally conceptualized. For academic critics, activists, and many of the people subjected to it, "broken windows" became a byword for heavy-handed, racist policing; for supporters it was the force that pulled New York City out of its dark days.
Kelling and co-author James Q. Wilson's basic theory, laid out in a 1982 Atlantic article titled "Broken Windows," argues that putting more beat cops on the street to deter nuisance and "quality of life" crimes—public urination, drunkenness, aggressive panhandling, etc.—will create the social cohesion and order that stops more serious crimes. The theory has folksy appeal of a truism: If you take care of the little things, the big things will follow.
One problem Kelling and Wilson couldn't solve, although they explicitly warned of it in their original article, was the danger of giving police forces with histories of racism and misconduct the political mandate and discretion to crack down on neighborhoods at will.
"We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question," Kelling and Wilson wrote. "We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority."
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