Don't ignore broken windows

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jason Beers
  • 887th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron commander
The names James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling probably mean very little to a military member, unless they have studied criminology or urban sociology. These gentlemen published an article in The Atlantic Monthly in 1982 titled "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety." In this article they examined the relationships between visible disorder (broken windows, graffiti, trash, etc.), community attitudes and the role of the police in maintaining social order.

They found that in general, when the first signs of visible social disorder go uncorrected, for example a broken window that goes unfixed, it leads to more disorder. A broken window leads to a second broken window, which can lead to graffiti, which can lead to muggers, drug dealers and other more serious criminal activity. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Kelling are careful to point out that this is not an inevitable chain even if there is no intervention; but unchecked minor social disorder may result in increased crime.

A second part of their article discussed the role of the police in maintaining the social order. They examined the transformation of the police from its early days as a social order maintenance organization to one today that focuses only on the enforcement of laws. In essence, the police had gone from looking at the smallest infractions (broken windows) to caring only about the bigger problems (drug dealers). They theorized that if the police were to get involved in order maintenance there would be a noticeable reduction of criminal activity.

Not mentioned in their article is the prospect of the total elimination of crime. This may be a goal that is controlled more by an individual's choice than a collective system; I think we all realize there is at least one person who will commit a crime. The goal is to convince the group of people who might commit a crime not to do so.

As with any theory, the jury is out in its universal application, but certain cities have had success in using it to reduce crime, most notably New York City. Starting in the mid 1980s and further energized by Rudy Giuliani, New York City increased its emphasis on social disorder problems by policing minor offenses (fare jumping in the subway, panhandlers, public intoxication, etc.), and visible social disorder (garbage, graffiti). What resulted was a drop in crime that was greater than the national average.

Sitting here commanding my fourth squadron (two in the continental U.S. and two in Iraq), I see the applicability of this theory in the military as well. What standards are unimportant? Which ones do you not enforce? Any of them that go un-enforced can be the first broken window in your neighborhood. What comes next? That single un-enforced standard, no matter how small, may result in a more serious standard being violated. That broken window could result in drug dealers working openly on your street corners. Or in Air Force terms, failing to correct that Airman who chooses not to wear their uniform properly could result in an Airman failing to follow a technical order that results in a crashed aircraft.

Noncommissioned officers and officers, you are the police force in the military. In that role, you must be willing to do more than just law enforcement; you are the key in order maintenance as well. If you have the attitude of "don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff," when you fail to enforce the smallest standards, you are inviting bigger things to go wrong.

Don't ignore the broken windows.