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BROKEN WINDOWS OR WINDOW DRESSING? CITIZENS'(IN) ABILITY TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DISORDER AND CRIME

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Research Summary

Broken windows theory (and policing strategies based on this perspective) predicts that citizens' perceptions of disorder in their communities cause fear and social withdrawal, which thereby opens the streets for serious predatory crime. A key assumption, therefore, is that the primary exogenous variable in the broken windows process (disorder) and its outcome variable (crime) are actually separate constructs. The empirical evidence regarding the discriminant validity of measures of disorder and crime, however, is mixed. This confusion is caused in part by the general reliance on comparing “objective” indicators of disorder and crime (e.g., using systematic social observations of disorder and/or official records of crime), which fail to capture the social meaning ascribed to disorder by community residents that may trigger the broken windows process. To address this issue, the current study presents competing confirmatory factor analytic models to test the relative fit of one- and two-factor models of citizens' perceptions of disorder and crime in their communities. The results show that the two-factor model is inappropriate because of a high correlation between perceptions of disorder and crime. The primary implication of this finding is that broken windows theory and order maintenance policing need to be reconsidered. Policy Implications

Broken windows, or order maintenance policing, is premised on the idea that citizens recognize disorder as a problem apart from crime and that reducing disorder will cause a decline in fear. The results of the current study refute the underlying logic of order maintenance policing by demonstrating that survey respondents did not, in fact, distinguish between disorder and crime. This result has implications both for the actual effectiveness of order maintenance policing in terms of crime reduction and for citizens' satisfaction with police agencies that focus more on disorder than on serious crime.
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Keywords: broken windows; confirmatory factor analysis; crime; disorder; order maintenance policing

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Associate professor and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Washington State University.

Publication date: 2008-05-01

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