Order Maintenance Policing Research Paper

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Order maintenance policing is a police practice that involves managing minor offenses and neighborhood disorders in order to address community problems. Order maintenance policing is influenced by the “broken windows” hypothesis, which describes the process by which minor offenses can lead to citizen fear and the decline of neighborhoods. Order maintenance policing has been credited with crime reduction in cities across the United States, most notably in New York City during the 1990s.

Definition Of Order Maintenance Policing

That officers should help to maintain order in communities has always been an expected and desired function of modern police. In the contemporary sense, order maintenance policing (also called “broken windows” policing or “quality-of-life” policing) refers to a police operational tactic that involves managing minor offenses and acts of physical and social disorder. Order maintenance is generally identified as an element of the community-policing paradigm, and as such it is closely associated with problem-oriented policing and situational crime prevention.

The merits of reducing disorder and quality-of-life offenses are self-evident (Wilson and Kelling 2006). In addition, order maintenance policing has been credited with reducing serious crime in many communities. As evidence of its effectiveness grows, more police departments and other criminal justice agencies have integrated its principles into their functions. Yet while order maintenance continues to be popular with citizens and government agencies, it is often not well understood. Order maintenance policing, for example, is often mistakenly labeled as zerotolerance policing. The association between these terms confuses theoretical discussions and invites misinterpretation over policy and practice.

This research paper begins with the origins of order maintenance policing, including a description of its theoretical underpinnings. The article then examines the approach within the context of the community-policing paradigm before turning to applications of order maintenance and evidence of its effectiveness. The paper concludes with current debates and controversies over order maintenance policing efforts.

Origins Of Order Maintenance Policing

The “Broken Windows” Influence

Order maintenance policing is highly influenced by the “broken windows” hypothesis. Developed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, “broken windows” describes the process by which minor criminal behaviors and other types of community disorders can lead to the decline of neighborhoods. Wilson and Kelling used the term “broken windows” as a metaphor in the original hypothesis, reflecting the idea that one broken window in a building is the first sign of disorder – left unrepaired, more windows may well become broken as such behavior is overlooked or ignored.

Wilson and Kelling further argued that relatively minor offenses have the potential to generate fear among citizens, causing them to alter their own behavior to avoid confrontation with disorderly actors or conditions. As people alter their behavior to avoid disorderly places, these locations experience less informal social control and produce an atmosphere where acts of disorder appear acceptable. These places are more susceptible to serious crime because offenders will feel more at ease at locations with permissive atmospheres toward disorder and weak informal social control mechanisms.

The disorders that Wilson and Kelling refer to in the original article involve social behaviors (such as prostitution, public alcohol and drug use, public urination and defecation, aggressive panhandling, unruly gangs of youth) and physical conditions (such as vandalism, graffiti, abandoned buildings and vehicles, unkempt vacant lots, trash and litter, discarded drug paraphernalia) (see also Skogan 1990). It is important to note that disorder does not necessarily refer to illegal activities. As described by Wilson and Kelling, disorderly acts also involve behaviors that are “disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable” (1982: 30) – although perhaps not criminal in the legal sense, these behaviors can inspire fear and apprehension in the eyes of an observer. It is also important to consider that while minor offenses and disorder can potentially impact quality of life in neighborhoods, community decline and serious crime are not inevitable. Different communities possess varying capacities to absorb disorder, and “broken windows” theorists acknowledge that numerous factors contribute to whether certain behaviors or conditions are considered problematic to citizens. For example, the time of day, the type of place (i.e., residential versus commercial versus industrial locations), the previous behaviors of disorderly persons, the condition of the observer, and the amount/accumulation of minor offenses are all factors in terms of the relative impact of disorder on a given community (Kelling and Coles 1996).

The policy implication of the “broken windows” hypothesis is clear: if police and citizens proactively maintain order by managing minor offenses, they can control a source of fear and potentially prevent more serious crime and the deterioration of quality of life in neighborhoods. Thus, “order maintenance” is a viable option for police who must address community problems involving both disorderly offenses and serious criminal activity.

Inspiration From Urban Planning, Social Psychology, And Police Practice

Three major tenets of “broken windows” (and order maintenance policing by extension) include (1) the view that citizens desire a degree of orderliness in communities, (2) the idea that minor disorder can lead to greater disorder, and (3) the belief that police are uniquely situated to support citizens in maintaining order. These three tenets were influenced by a number of works from a variety of disciplines (see Ranasinghe 2012). For example, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) – a classic in the field of urban development – demonstrated the importance of order maintenance in communities by describing how citizens are strong proponents of (and can be great providers of) peace and order in public places. Experiments in social psychology – including the work of Philip Zimbardo (1970) – provided a foundation for the idea that indifference toward minor disorders can potentially lead to more serious forms of disorder. Studies in police practice, especially Egon Bittner’s (1967) seminal study of officers on skid row, demonstrated the distinction between the “law enforcement” and “peacekeeping” roles of police while revealing the police capacity for managing minor offenses in troubled communities.

Perhaps the most important empirical influences on broken windows, however, came from two sources. The first involved observations of police behavior in eight communities conducted by James Q. Wilson in the 1960s (Wilson 1968). These observations revealed three different styles of police departments – the legalistic, the watchman, and the service styles – that influence the performance and discretion of officers. The second involved the results of studies on foot patrol conducted during the 1970s. For example, researchers conducting the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment (Kelling et al. 1981) found that citizens in areas where there was foot patrol felt safer and were generally more satisfied with police services than citizens in areas where there was only motorized patrol. Drawing on these studies, Wilson and Kelling argued that foot patrol officers exercised more discretion and were more proactive in terms of regulating disorderly activities that troubled citizens. This formed the basis of the broken windows hypothesis and the idea that order maintenance performed by police can be of intrinsic value to neighborhoods.

Applications Of Order Maintenance Policing

Relationship To Community Policing And Problem-Oriented Policing

Order maintenance policing and its related theory of broken windows are often associated with the origins of the community-policing paradigm. The core elements of community policing, including greater police accountability to citizens, enhanced partnerships with citizens, and proactive problem solving, began to evolve in the late 1970s in response to the failure of police strategies to adequately address urban problems and other community concerns (Kelling and Coles 1996; Kelling and Moore 1988). As foot patrol experiments informed the ideas behind broken windows, Herman Goldstein (1979) argued that the policing tactics of the mid-1900s were overly reactive in nature and focused too specifically on resolving individual incidents rather than broader community problems. To improve policing, Goldstein suggested a more proactive “problem-oriented” approach where police consider single incidents as potential symptoms of larger problems. By identifying and addressing the symptoms, officers can work to prevent future incidents and thus eliminate broader neighborhood concerns.

Since the introduction of Goldstein’s problem-oriented approach, a number of tactics have become associated with proactive activities designed to prevent crime and disorder. These include tactics that are designed to address highly problematic locations (i.e., “hot spots” policing (see Sherman and Weisburd 1995)), high-risk victims (i.e., repeat victimization strategies (see Farrell and Pease 1993)), and high-risk offenders (i.e., “pulling levers” and “ceasefire” efforts (see Kennedy 1998 and Braga et al. 2001)). Additionally, research into situational crime prevention offers police and citizens numerous options for deterring criminal activity and other community concerns (see Clarke and Eck 2005).

Order maintenance tactics can also be viewed within this problem-oriented policing framework. To the extent that community problems are associated with minor disorders and quality-of-life offenses, order maintenance offers a potential means of managing those problems. Moreover, because order maintenance tactics are generally implemented in response to public demand for enhanced police services, they represent a measure of accountability to citizens in support of the general objectives of community policing.

Specific And General Applications

Applications of order maintenance policing have ranged from microlevel initiatives to macrolevel policies. Microlevel initiatives involve programs where police seek to impact specific behaviors at targeted locations. A shopping plaza that is frequently the target of graffiti vandals, a city street that is a common stroll for prostitutes, or a public park where teenagers constantly harass and intimidate passersby could be instances where specific order maintenance interventions are appropriate. Police departments have also implemented order maintenance as a more general, problem-oriented strategy. In these cases, officers are asked to continuously analyze the impact of disorder on their beats and to be proactive in its management.

An example of a microlevel order maintenance intervention occurred in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park in 2003 (Sousa and Kelling 2010). Over the course of decades, MacArthur Park had deteriorated from a scenic, recreational location to a hot spot for drug dealing, public drug and alcohol use, prostitution, vandalism, and various other forms of public disorder. In 2003, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) began an initiative that combined elements of situational crime prevention with assertive order maintenance. By focusing resources on minor offenses, police were able to restore order to a level where citizens felt less threatened and more comfortable using the park for its intended purposes. MacArthur Park is now largely self-regulating – although LAPD continues to be mindful of the conditions in the park, the legitimate users of the park are able to maintain order on their own without substantial police intervention.

In contrast to a microlevel application, New York City provides perhaps the most well-known example of order maintenance as a macrolevel policy application. In the early 1990s, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was facing increasing citizen demand for more effective police service as the result of high crime rates and nearly unchecked disorder in public locations and residential neighborhoods. Culturally, NYPD was a department that was generally inattentive to disorder. Officers were often discouraged from enforcing minor offenses because the department considered them to be either too unimportant or too controversial for police intervention.

Order maintenance policing in New York began in 1993 with NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and his much publicized efforts to have police manage aggressive “squeegeeing” – a quality-of-life offense that for many New Yorkers had become a symbol of unregulated disorderly behavior. NYPD order maintenance, however, developed further and became more closely associated with Commissioner William Bratton’s administration starting in 1994. Bratton, a strong advocate of the “broken windows” hypothesis and the principles of order maintenance, had success implementing order maintenance tactics while he was the head of the New York City Transit Police in 1990. While with the Transit Police, Bratton asked officers to more assertively manage turnstile jumping, fare evasion, and other low-level misbehavior occurring within the subway system – a tactic that was later associated with a reduction in serious crime and other forms of disorder (Kelling and Coles 1996; Bratton and Knobler 1998). When Bratton became Commissioner of the NYPD several years later, he applied the same principles on a citywide basis: NYPD officers were now encouraged to manage minor offenses and other forms of disorder that were considered problems in New York communities.

Crime in New York City declined dramatically in the 1990s following the implementation of order maintenance policing (Kelling and Coles 1996). New York’s crime reduction continues to be the subject of numerous academic and journalistic commentaries. Several theories have been offered for the historic crime drop, including varying demographic patterns, shifts in economic conditions, and changes in drug-use trends – especially those associated with the crack-cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s. Other programs in the city may have played a role as well, including the influence of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) (agreements between property owners to pool funds to provide security and maintenance for local businesses) and the establishment of the Midtown Community Court in 1993. NYPD also began additional initiatives during Bratton’s administration, including the now famous Compstat system – a process that combines managerial accountability with data management and problem-oriented policing. Nevertheless, NYPD’s general order maintenance policy is often considered the primary catalyst for crime reduction in New York City during the 1990s.

Order Maintenance Policing: Evidence Of Effectiveness

Empirical Evidence

Researchers who study order maintenance policing will often examine the influence of the enforcement of minor offenses (a proxy for order maintenance) on instances of serious crime. One method of doing this involves the use of trend analyses that consider the impact of order maintenance tactics over time. Kelling and Sousa (2001), for example, combined data from the NYPD, the New York City Department of Education, the New York State Department of Labor, and the New York State Department of Health to conclude that order maintenance policing was the most significant factor in New York’s crime reduction, suggesting that over 60,000 violent crimes were prevented during the 1990s as a result of the tactic. Corman and Mocan’s (2002) time-series analysis of police and economic data also demonstrated the crime prevention benefits of order maintenance in New York, indicating that the policy produced a substantial reduction in motor vehicle theft and robbery from 1990 to 1999. Using California county-level arrest and complaint data from 1989 through 2000, Worrall (2006) found that the enforcement of minor offenses such as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and public drunkenness reduced felonious assaults and burglaries.

Trend studies of order maintenance, however, have not always produced consistent results. For example, although Corman and Mocan (2002) found that order maintenance had a substantial impact on auto theft and robbery, they did not find a similar effect for other crimes such as assault and burglary. Messner et al.’s (2007) cross-sectional time-series analysis of data from New York City generally supports earlier conclusions that order maintenance policing had a significant impact on serious crime during the 1990s, but they also found that drug-use trends were important influences. Rosenfeld et al. (2007) found some crime-reduction value of order maintenance policing in New York using trend data from police, medical, and census sources, but they argue that the impact of the tactic was moderate. Similarly, Berk and MacDonald (2010) used 8 years of time-series data to evaluate the impact of an initiative that involved disorder management activities by police in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. They found that the initiative had a meaningful impact on nuisance, property, and violent crimes in the target area with some beneficial spillover effect into the surrounding areas, but they determined that the effect of the initiative was relatively modest.

Other trend/time-series analyses find few significant crime-reduction benefits of order maintenance policing. Novak et al. (1999) determined that a police initiative focusing on joyriding, loud noise, public alcohol use, and other public nuisance offenses did not reduce robbery or burglary in a community, although they admit that the project was not designed to directly impact those serious crime categories. Similarly, Katz et al. (2001) found that quality-of-life policing initiative in a section of Chandler, Arizona, did not significantly reduce calls for service for serious crime, but it did reduce calls for public morals and physical disorder offenses. Harcourt and Ludwig (2006) found no relationship between order maintenance policing and the crime decline in New York during the 1990s, although subsequent analyses failed to replicate their findings (see Messner et al. 2007).

Besides trend studies, researchers have also employed experimental designs – generally considered to be a more rigorous methodology – to study the impact of order maintenance policing. Braga et al. (1999), for example, utilized a randomized experimental design to examine the impact of a problem-oriented policing strategy at violent crime hot spots in Jersey City, New Jersey. This problem-oriented strategy, which primarily involved targeting minor offenses and forms of physical and social disorder, was successful at reducing crime at the experimental locations with little evidence of displacement. Braga and Bond (2008) used a similar experimental design to assess the effects of policing disorder at hot spots in Lowell, Massachusetts. They found significant reductions in crime in the experimental areas compared to the control areas – a result of the disorder management strategies employed by the police.

Measuring What Matters

Studies that evaluate the impact of order maintenance policing often face several challenges in terms of measurement. One problem – particularly for trend and time-series analyses – is in the choice of the key independent variable that represents the concept of order maintenance. Researchers will often rely on a variable from agency data that measures the enforcement of minor offenses, such as officially recorded arrests for misdemeanor offenses or citations for minor legal infractions. The difficulty with indicators such as these, however, is that they do not capture the full extent of the idea of order maintenance policing. Enforcing minor offenses involves complicated interactions between officers and citizens and often includes a range of police actions that are much more complex than making arrests or issuing citations. Studies that use these measures as independent variables, therefore, are likely underestimating the extent of order maintenance policing that has been implemented. Many of the trend/ time-series studies discussed above, for example, tend to rely on arrest data as a proxy for order maintenance. With only a few exceptions (see, e.g., Kelling and Sousa 2001), authors do not fully explore the limitations of such data.

A second problem with evaluations of order maintenance policing is in the choice of the dependent variable. Researchers generally choose an indicator of serious crime (i.e., felony crime) as the outcome variable because of the link between disorder and serious offenses that is hypothesized by the “broken windows” theory. This choice makes intuitive sense if the objective of the order maintenance initiative is to reduce serious crime. The difficulty, however, is that a reduction in serious crime is not always the primary goal (or even an intended goal) of an order maintenance program – sometimes the objective is to reduce disorder itself. For example, robberies may well have gone down in the New York City subway system as a result of Bratton’s order maintenance program, but the initiative was originally implemented to gain control over a chaotic environment (Kelling and Coles 1996). Likewise, the order maintenance activities performed by LAPD in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park were meant to decrease disorder so that all citizens felt comfortable using the park for its intended purposes (Sousa and Kelling 2010).

Studies that fail to consider appropriate outcome variables may miss important indicators of success from order maintenance initiatives. Thacher (2004) makes this point clear in his discussion of the value of order maintenance policing. Thacher argues that the relationship between order maintenance policing and a reduction in serious crime is indirect and therefore the sort of causal connection that is difficult to detect using social science methodologies. He suggests, however, that order maintenance is directly related to a reduction in minor offenses. As such, it is more useful for researchers to explore the importance of order maintenance policing at reducing disorder, regardless of its impact on serious offending. To the extent that disorder is itself a problem in communities, order maintenance efforts that target disorder have intrinsic value.

Recent research has indeed been more inclined to consider the impact of order maintenance policing beyond its impact on serious crime. For example, Hinkle and Weisburd (2008) use survey data from Jersey City, New Jersey, to examine the influence of an order maintenance initiative on citizens’ fear of crime and perceptions of disorder. Their findings suggest that reductions in disorder can lead to reductions in fear. Interestingly, the authors also found that fear of crime may be enhanced by increased police presence, indicating that police should carefully communicate with citizens while engaging in high-visibility order maintenance activities.

Understanding Order Maintenance Policing


Practitioners, policy-makers, and citizens commonly accept order maintenance policing as an option for improving the quality of life in neighborhoods. Within academic circles, however, order maintenance has frequently been the subject of contentious and politically charged debates. Academic criticisms of order maintenance come in various forms. Some critics question the theoretical underpinnings of order maintenance policing. Others question the appropriateness of giving officers the authority to police disorder in communities.

Critics that challenge the theoretical underpinnings of order maintenance often point to the “broken windows” hypothesis and the theorized link between disorder and serious crime. They argue that if a direct causal connection between disorder and serious crime is not strong, then efforts to manage disorder will be futile. Research is inconsistent regarding the direct link between incivilities and crime. Skogan (1990), for example, found a significant relationship between disorder and criminal activity, while analyses by Harcourt (2001) and Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) suggest that a direct link may be weak except for specific crimes like robbery. Taylor (2001) found some evidence that disorder directly leads to crime but indicates that the relationship is relatively weak and that neighborhood factors may be better predictors of criminal activity.

Two responses can be directed at the assertion that a weak direct connection between disorder and serious crime is a challenge to “broken windows” and to order maintenance policing. First, the “broken windows” hypothesis as stated by Wilson and Kelling does not propose a direct connection between disorder and serious crime – the hypothesized connection is indirect, mediated by increases in citizen fear and breakdowns in informal social control mechanisms. This explains why communities with strong informal social control can manage a level of disorder that might otherwise damage communities with weaker control mechanisms. Research that suggests a weak causal connection between disorder and serious crime, therefore, does notnecessarily disprove “broken windows” (see Gault and Silver 2008). Second, as discussed previously, there may be intrinsic value to order maintenance policing even if a strong causal connection between disorder and serious crime cannot be established (Thacher 2004). Disorder is itself a concern in communities, demonstrated by research that consistently shows a relationship between incivilities and citizen fear (see, e.g., Skogan and Maxfield 1981). A relatively weak causal connection between disorder and serious crime, therefore, does not justify the abandonment of order maintenance principles.

A second general concern voiced by critics of order maintenance policing involves the concept of “disorder” and whether it is morally appropriate for police to enforce it. Critics essentially argue that disorder is a vague concept and that one’s perception of it is subjective. Police efforts to enforce disorderly behavior may therefore criminalize relatively harmless activities that some citizens consider to be acceptable (see Harcourt 2001). This is particularly a concern if police order maintenance efforts disproportionately impact people who live in poor, urban neighborhoods (see Fagan and Davies 2000). Further, critics often equate order maintenance tactics with the term “zero-tolerance” policing, suggesting that police exercise little discretion in their heavy-handed management of minor offenses (see Greene 1999).

Much of this criticism of order maintenance policing originates from academic and political sources (Sousa and Kelling 2010). These sources often differ ideologically from police administrators in terms of methods by which police should manage problems in communities. For example, although critics have warned about the misuse of order maintenance policing, few have provided empirical evidence of its misuse. Those that claim that order maintenance criminalizes harmless behavior, for instance, usually do not consider the fear-inducing qualities of disorder. Critics who argue that order maintenance practices disproportionately impact citizens living in poor, urban communities often do not consider the demand from those communities for police to deal with incivilities and minor offenses (see Skogan 1990). Finally, those that claim that order maintenance is “zero tolerance” have rarely viewed order maintenance in practice, relying instead on dramatized media accounts and agency data that are limited and often flawed.

Order Maintenance In Practice

Critics of order maintenance appropriately call attention to the moral complexities of policing disorder – and the proper deployment of order maintenance is indeed a concern. In fact, the authors of the original “broken windows” essay warned against the misuse of policies derived from the theory. Wilson and Kelling (1982) indicated, for example, that caution is necessary to ensure the fair balance between individual rights and community interests when managing disorder. Also, proper care must be taken to make certain that police use discretion appropriately when enforcing neighborhood rules and the criminal law. Like many police tools, order maintenance is a tactic that can be abused. (The history of interrogation practices demonstrates how a powerful police technique requires continuous oversight and vigilance.) Yet, like interrogation practices, order maintenance can provide a valuable option to police if properly managed.

Due to the moral complexities of policing disorder, Thacher (2004) suggests that the merits of order maintenance should be examined based on how it is deployed in communities. Some recent research has proceeded along these lines by evaluating citizens’ views of order maintenance and by examining the activities of officers who practice it. Weisburd et al. (2011), for example, administered telephone surveys to citizens living in neighborhoods that had received aggressive order maintenance policing. They found that residents were not negatively impacted by police actions at those locations, suggesting that police legitimacy is not harmed by order maintenance activities. Sousa (2010) conducted observations of officers practicing order maintenance policing in New York City. Contrary to critics’ claims that order maintenance is the equivalent of zero tolerance, he concluded that officers were aware of the complexities of policing disorder and often used their discretion to informally resolve situations that involved minor offenses. Importantly, the observations revealed that “maintaining order” involved making arrests and writing citations only rarely – officers were much more inclined to warn or verbally reprimand citizens for committing disorderly acts. Order maintenance activities were better categorized as officers “paying attention” to minor offenses (rather than ignoring them) – but where official action (arrest or citation) was only one of several options.

Despite the controversies, the available evidence suggests that order maintenance policing can be implemented fairly and appropriately. As with any police-involved initiative, order maintenance practices are most promising when the community accepts the intended police tactics. Therefore, to lessen controversy, supervision over officers and communication between police and the public concerning quality-of-life policing are an important part of an order maintenance program.


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