Breaking Broken Windows

January 7, 2015

The "Broken Windows" theory of policing is coming under increasing scrutiny, writes Jason Farbman--especially in New York City, where its architect is chief of police.

IN THE second week of an unofficial police slowdown in New York City, arrests have plummeted, but Gotham hasn't been engulfed by a crime wave--giving the Black Lives Matter movement further proof that the over-policing theory known as "Broken Windows" has to go, along with its architect, NYPD Chief William Bratton.

Since two officers were killed in December, the NYPD has gone on what the New York Post called "a virtual work stoppage," with police making arrests "only when they have to."

"Let that sink in for a moment," Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone, wryly emphasizing the unstated admission that the NYPD normally makes a lot of arrests that it doesn't have to.

In the first week of police inaction, traffic citations plummeted 94 percent, compared to the previous year; low-level violations such as public drinking were also down by 94 percent; parking violations dropped by 92 percent; and drug arrests by 84 percent. Altogether, arrests were down by 66 percent.

In the second week, arrests were down to half of what they were a year ago at the same time, and summons have gone from 4,077 to 347. "The precinct covering [Coney Island] did not record a single parking ticket, traffic summons or ticket for a low-level crime," according to the New York Times.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) talks to Police Commissioner William Bratton
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) talks to Police Commissioner William Bratton

The police slowdown is inadvertently demonstrating the fallacy behind the NYPD practice of targeting poor and working class neighborhoods with heavy enforcement of minor offenses--the theory being that these petty behaviors, if left unpunished, lay the groundwork for more serious, violent crimes.

This is the "Broken Windows" theory first introduced in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by criminologists George Kelling and James Wilson titled "Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety." Kelling and Wilson argued that minor crimes and vandalism, such as breaking windows, created a lawless atmosphere that encouraged more serious crime.

Broken Windows policing therefore calls for crackdowns on a litany of small offenses that threaten "public order"--including graffiti, jaywalking, street vending, squeegeeing cars at stoplights, loitering, sleeping or drinking in public spaces, truancy, reckless bicycle riding, noise pollution, littering and panhandling.

"The unchecked panhandler," Kelling and Wilson wrote, "is, in effect, the first broken window."

The list of "offenses" is so broad that police have the latitude to target nearly anyone at any time. As with other "tough on crime" policies, race is rarely invoked explicitly. Yet nearly 90 percent of people subjected to the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program in recent years were people of color.

Even more chilling is a 1996 Amnesty International report documenting an immediate spike in civilians shot dead or who died in police custody in the first year Broken Windows was introduced to New York City in Bratton's first tenure as police chief in 1994. These deaths were overwhelmingly people of color, as one would expect given the patterns of police targeting and arrest.


LOOKING AT the potential effects of the police slowdown, Business Insider suggested that if "future data shows cutting down on arrests for minor offenses that could unfairly target minorities doesn't increase crime, Bratton and [Mayor Bill] de Blasio might want to re-evaluate their reliance on broken windows."

Unfortunately, de Blasio's and Bratton's commitment to Broken Windows seems unlikely to flag if left to their own devices.

De Blasio campaigned for mayor on the theme that New York had become "a tale of two cities," and by promising to curtail the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy. But when de Blasio hired Bill Bratton as police commissioner, it signaled an early and firm commitment to the very style of policing he had campaigned against.

As police chief in the 1990s under Rudolph Giuliani, Bratton was the person most responsible for transferring Broken Windows from theory to practice. Activists opposed to his re-hiring by de Blasio pointed out that Broken Windows paved the way for stop-and-frisk.

Yet the mayor's support for Bratton has not yet wavered, even after weeks of protests against police violence. "Commissioner Bill Bratton has literally done more to reduce crime than anyone walking the planet today," de Blasio told police academy graduates at an address in December.

Doubling down on Broken Windows policing has meant a renewed crackdown on all sorts of non-crimes. In the year since de Blasio took office, arrests have increased by 300 percent against subway fare dodgers, panhandlers, subway performers and homeless people.

Among the primary targets have been performers who dance on the subways. In Michael Bloomberg's last year in office, two dancers were arrested. Over 240 were arrested in the first eleven months of 2014.

Of course, Black and Brown people continue to be targets in vastly disproportionate numbers. In 2014, there were 500 marijuana arrests in East New York, home to an almost exclusively Black population. Six miles away, in the much wealthier and whiter neighborhood of Park Slope, there were 13 arrests all year.

No concerns about this disparity were evident at a recent gala honoring Bill Bratton--but there were two maps projected on a screen: one showing geographical drops in crime and one showing rising property values. They were nearly identical. "As a homeowner in Brooklyn, I was struck by the real-estate value map," gushed de Blasio from the podium. "There's good news all around tonight."

The amount de Blasio is willing to pay for such good news seems endless. In 2014, the NYPD's budget was $4.7 billion, a ludicrous amount of money under any circumstances, but criminal when we consider the city's starving public schools system, rapidly shuttering hospitals, underfunded public transportation and many other markers of life in neighborhoods that deteriorate as fast as others gentrify.

Instead of injecting money into these crumbling neighborhoods, the endless stream of tickets and summons under Broken Windows has turned police into an army of tax collectors preying on the already poor. It's difficult to tell exactly how much revenue New York City draws by targeting low-level offenses. But parking fines alone bring in $10.5 million a week on average, according to the city's Independent Budget Office, $546 million for the year 2014.

From these conditions emerges "colorblind" racism that blames the oppressed for the conditions they endure. From underfunded schools in neighborhoods of color come myths that Black people don't value education. From a highly militarized police occupation tasked with criminalizing an expansive list of nonthreatening behavior comes the fiction that Black people have a culture of criminality.

The uprooting of poor Black and Brown people from the neighborhoods they grew up in, via gentrification, is excused by claims that the "criminal element" is being driven from the community. These fictitious claims are then deployed to justify the oppressive conditions in the first place.


BROKEN WINDOWS killed Eric Garner last July. Police were dispatched to a Staten Island park in response to complaints that people were loitering, and when Garner complained about the harassment, six officers attacked him and choked him to death.

The day before a grand jury announced it would not indict Eric Garner's murderers in December, de Blasio held a press conference to reveal crime statistics for 2014. In his first year in office, the mayor announced, crime dropped across the board, including a record-low murder rate.

The New York Times noted the suspicious coincidence, writing that "the announcement...appeared timed to precede a decision by a Staten Island grand jury."

De Blasio's intended message seemed to be that policing might sometimes have unfortunate--even deadly--consequences, but that the system is working, and policing strategies like Broken Windows are making our streets safer.

On the contrary, there is no evidence that criminalizing innocuous behavior has played any role in reducing serious crime. After studying 14 years' worth of crime data, a New York University study concluded that Broken Windows policing had nothing to do with making New York City safer.

There is no causal connection "between an increase in misdemeanor arrests and a drop in felonies," wrote NYU sociologist David Greenberg, "no causal connection between officers per capita at the precinct level and reductions in violent crime."

If it seemed plausible that crime rates had dropped because of tougher policing of minor offenses, it was because crime rates did drop at roughly the same time as Broken Windows was introduced. But a closer look shows that those drops either preceded Broken Windows or also took place in cities and countries that had no similar policy.

When Broken Windows was first implemented in New York City in 1994, crime had declined in every month for 36 consecutive months in all seven of the FBI's major categories. While Broken Windows was introduced in only a handful of locations outside New York City, crime plummeted in cities across the country during the 1990s. Nationally, crime rates fell by "40 percent in cities and states across the country and in all major crime categories from homicides to auto thefts," according to Franklin Zimring at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

In Canada, crime "dropped about 30 percent in most categories for eight years...a near-perfect match with the U.S. pattern," according to Zimring. Although Canada's crime rate declines matched New York City's, Zimring noted, "Canada's prison population declined, [and] there were fewer police officers on the streets."


THIS EVIDENCE strongly suggests that we shouldn't accept the claim that Broken Windows policing led to less crime.

The lack of a direct connection was actually taken for granted in the original argument for Broken Windows. In their 1982 article, Kelling and Wilson described an early experiment in Newark in which it was determined, "to the surprise of hardly anyone, that foot patrols had not reduced crime rates."

What Kelling and Wilson did observe: "Residents of the foot-patrolled neighborhoods seemed to feel more secure than persons in other areas, tended to believe that crime had been reduced." (emphasis added)

Today, New York City is one of the most stratified, segregated cities in the world, begging the question: Which neighborhoods feel more secure, and for whom? Obviously not Eric Garner. The widespread resonance of the slogan Black Lives Matter--in New York City and throughout the country--indicates this is an easy question to answer for increasing numbers of people.

Bill de Blasio knew the legacy he was embracing when he chose to bring Bill Bratton back to New York as his police chief. It's a legacy to which de Blasio holds tightly as he champions Bratton as an effective crime fighter, as arrests for minor offenses skyrocket by 300 percent.

New Yorkers may have a temporary reprieve while the NYPD throws its tantrum. But we should make no mistake about the fundamental commitment to Broken Windows at the highest levels in New York City.

It will take a massive amount of pressure from our side just to take away from police the "right" to kill with impunity. The struggle to fend off police intervention in other aspects of life will be a longer, more complicated battle. It's one we can't win without taking up the colorblind racism that underpins policies like Broken Windows.

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