Sunday, May 26, 2019

Closing a window on a giant

Professor George Kelling - photo Rutgers University 

by Gregory Saville

George Kelling, police scholar and renowned criminologist, died last week. At a time when we thirst for new ideas, Kelling was a giant!

A decade ago, I sat in a sunny Florida conference room packed with 40 police executives gathered to discuss the future of police leadership. At one point I was seated beside Kelling, quite enjoying his easy manner and penetrating ideas. By that point, Kelling’s contribution to policing and crime prevention was legendary, especially an idea he co-authored called the Broken Windows Theory (BWT), also known as quality-of-life policing.


I recall Kelling good-heartedly chastise some police executives in that room when they intimated BWT was zero-tolerance enforcement and aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics. Actually, in contrast to positive crime prevention and BWT research, studies showed that zero tolerance enforcement did not work. 

Yet the reality of our conference discussions was that back at work, far from our vista overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, crime prevention programs were often little more than media-distorted, bureaucratic manipulations. BWT was not zero-tolerance enforcement, but many police departments still applied it that way. 

Kelling repeatedly published articles to correct the combat cop version of BWT: 
“The assertiveness of Broken Windows misdemeanor enforcement, however, does not equate with “zero tolerance” policies and high-arrest strategies, as is sometimes alleged; done correctly, order-maintenance policing does not rely on such practices.”

Our recent Ottawa SafeGrowth training. All through his career, Kelling
insisted on police/community partnerships

Kelling said NYPD worked with private and nonprofit partners and partnered with businesses to improve lighting and streets. However, personally, I saw very few broken windows actually repaired by BWT. 


Kelling’s work represents much more than BWT. He learned the business of policing by walking alongside beat cops in Newark and Kansas City. 

He began his career as a social worker, but in the early 1970s he co-authored a pioneering study into police patrol and discovered routine police patrol had no statistical impact on crime or fear of crime. 

Although police still deploy police vehicles to patrol willy-nilly, Kelling’s experiment suggested resources are far better spent on crime prevention and other problem-solving strategies - an important lesson I learned from Kelling’s writing!

Beat officers joining our community anti-violence training.
Cops learning about community needs; the key to Kelling's work 

My impression is that Kelling cared much about victims from all walks of life, especially the disenfranchised. One of his former grad students shared with me this thought: “He believed in the power of ideas over the power of papers. He planted these idea seedlings and then nurtured and protected them. He was a true believer in the capacity of the police to do good.”

Perhaps if police leaders had ensured officers were properly trained and supervised in problem-solving methods, the broken windows story might have turned out very different! 

The Washington Post says Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory became “a cornerstone of community policing”. I’m unsure if that is true. But George Kelling’s other ideas and his ethics certainly did.