The core function of the police

'The core function of the police should be to maintain order. ' Discuss with particular reference to Wilson and Kelling's 'broken windows' thesis. This essay will provide an explanation of the broken windows thesis and link this to the role of the police in maintaining order. It will highlight that the thesis only recognises street crime as a source of criminal activity and how disorder and order are defined in this context. The issue of how maintaining order produces tension with regard to human rights will be examined and in particular who is often labelled as disorderly and therefore criminal.

The issue of reducing crime will also be investigated and the reason why reducing crime is viewed as so important in the first place. Finally the positive effects of the thesis will be examined and it will look at the alternatives to the police maintaining order. When Robert Peel founded the metropolitan police in the early 19th century, the primary function was crime prevention and maintaining order through street patrols. This was to protect the public from the 'menace of mob disorder' (Reith 1938) as Robert Peel did not want to leave the streets 'in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds'.

Since then maintaining order, to a greater or lesser degree has been one of the functions of the police (Emsley 2002), however with the introduction of motor vehicles this is no longer necessarily done on foot. The broken windows thesis, from a right realist perspective, calls for a return to foot patrol in local communities. The thesis uses the illustration of how one 'broken window' left un-repaired gives off the impression of an unattended or uncared for property. The 'broken window' is seen as the trigger, gradually other windows are broken reinforcing the sense that the authorities no longer care and disorder is tolerated.

The 'broken windows' are representative of disorderly people such as rowdy teenagers, drug dealers, drunks, pimps and so on. Community behaviour changes once the disorderly elements multiply. They become fearful of certain people or groups of people within the community, henceforth avoiding eye contact and certain areas labelled as criminal. Eventually respectable residents move out leaving the vulnerable such as the elderly. The neighbourhood is then open to colonization by more disorderly elements (Wilson & Kelling 1982).

As a right realist position the thesis is all too ready to accept the state and media defined concepts of crime. This means that disorder and crime are seen as limited to the streets, as if this is the only area of criminal activity and therefore should be the focus of police interest. This narrow vision fails to acknowledge other areas of disorder and crime, such as corporate and any disorder or crime occurring outside the view of the public. In the broken windows thesis it is the community who appear to define order and disorder, in this way it becomes the 'victims' view of disorder.

Becker (1963) points out that social or community rules define situations and the kinds of behaviour appropriate to them. So anyone acting or appearing to look as if they are outside those norms is labelled as criminal and 'invites' police interest. This not only suggests that the cause of disorder and crime is located within the criminal 'other', but that these are identifiable by their appearance and behaviour. Jefferson and Walker (1992) found that in Leeds blacks were more often stopped in white areas and whites were more often stopped in black and Asian areas.

This shows that community norms do influence police procedures and that who ever can be identified as 'different' i. e. in behaviour or appearance, is likely to draw police interest, regardless of whether that person is actually a 'criminal' or not. This produces a tension between maintaining order, human rights and police powers. For example foot patrol officers 'stop and search' powers are used under the loose concept of 'reasonable suspicion' which is open to misinterpretation, misuse and individual bias.

These powers have been predominantly used against ethnic minority groups and the underclass. In America an experiment about stereotyping Duncan (1976) showed how the behaviour of black men is viewed as 'violent' while the same behaviour in whites would be interpreted as 'fooling around', with participants not even aware of their bias. The Sentencing Project also points out that black people are 7. 8 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned (Davis 1998). In New York a 'zero tolerance' drive, highlights the extent of police racism.

Four men were acquitted of the murder of Amadou Diallo a West African immigrant, he was fired at 41 times, even though he was unarmed (Black Radical Congress 2000). Davis (1998) points out that in attempting to eliminate crime, the people who are pinpointed are the people to who criminal acts will be contributed and this 'enemy' is predominantly seen as coloured. In this way police powers are used against minorities groups who are perceived to be the 'enemy'. This bias towards racialized groups has been recognised in the political arena in some countries.

In Britain prejudice against ethnic minorities has been taken very seriously since such high profile racist incidence as the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Police forces were seen as failing in their duty of maintaining order, by not taking incidents of racism seriously. Since the police force was forced to acknowledged 'institutional racism', this has lead to new order maintenance legislation issued by the home office that now require that every instance of racism be investigated fully (McLaughlin 2001). This does not mean that the 'enemy' on the street is gone it has merely been transferred onto a new 'criminal' element.

When one 'enemy' is 'defeated' there is always a new one labelled to take its place, these are often highlighted with the help of the media. In Britain there is a new recognisable criminal group, they wear hoods. An article in the Daily Star newspaper explains how a man was minding his own business and these 'hoody thugs' attacked him without provocation (Malley 2005), while the daily mirror shares the opinion of the Ex-Metropolitan Police chief who believes 'hoodies' should receive longer prison sentences (McGurran 2005).

There is an assumption that disorderly behaviour and therefore criminal elements are easily recognisable and by removing these elements the problem will be eliminated. Kelling and Wilson even recognize the failures in establishing who is criminal. They point out that when people on a housing estate were asked where the dangerous places were they identified where young ones gather and play music, even though this was not an area of crime. This puts the thesis on shaky ground, they claim that if you sort out the disorderly elements this will stop it escalating into further criminal action.

However if the people pinpointed as disorderly are not committing or causing criminal acts how does stopping and harassing them prevent further criminal acts, it could surely produce the opposite effect in that they feel oppressed. Instead it is labelling people as disorderly and therefore criminal for what they look like and what they wear. This also illustrates that the thesis is one sided as it looks at the feelings and thoughts of the 'victims' but fails to take account of the feelings of those who are actually labelled as criminal.

The assumption to the thesis is that a police presence should reduce crime rates. However despite considering that the people they target may not be criminals and because they only look at crime that is visible, these in part could explain why foot patrols fails to combat crime, there are however other points to consider. For example in Britain Clarke & Hough (1984) point out that a patrolling policeman in London could expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary only once every eight years.

Goldblatt & Lewis (1998) point out that even increasing police numbers would not necessarily reduce crime and would not be financially viable. They also ignore the possible social causes of crime. Klockars (1988) suggests that the police cannot win war on crime as some things are just not within their power to change, such as unemployment, civil liberties the age distribution of the population moral education etc. Therefore many have disregarded foot patrol as an ineffective form of policing.