Broken Windows Policing

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain centered around “Broken Windows”, a model for policing and crime control that was adopted and popularized by many police departments in the United States. “Broken Windows” was an article originally published in the 1980s, arguing that the most effective way to combat high-level and violent crime was to focus on minor criminal offences. It gave the example of a community with broken windows being a sign of neglect, a place where crime can thrive. If police could do away with visible, low-level criminals (e.g. prostitutes, turnstile-jumpers, etc.), this would serve as a deterrent for more serious criminals. The podcast then goes on to analyze the effects of “Broken Windows” policing and its impact on the development of other controversial policies, such as Stop-and-Frisk.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani first implemented Broken Windows when he assumed office between 1993 and 1996, focusing first on cracking down on illegal subway riders. Once the policy proved successful, it was enlarged to encompass the rest of the city. It seemed to work, as about 1 in 10 of those apprehended on the subway were connected in some way to a higher-level crime, such as: illegal possession of a weapon, gang involvement, or were wanted for a felony.  Giuliani was hailed for vastly improving safety in New York City. Neighborhoods with high rates of misdemeanor arrests (Broken Windows policing) showed high levels of drops in crime overall.

My big problem with Broken Windows is that while it looks good on paper, it disproportionately affected and targeted communities of color, worsened police-community relations, and contributed to the United States’ ridiculously high incarceration rate. Yes, you could argue that it caused a sharp drop in crime in New York City, but the country as a whole had already been experiencing a sharp downturn in criminal activity and violent crime by the mid-90s. Broken Windows might have had a small effect in speeding up the decrease, but it is hard to say if it was a major contributing factor. Most of all, Broken Windows continued only attacking the symptoms of a neglected community, not the root cause. Prostitutes and low-level drug dealers by themselves do not turn a nice neighborhood into a bad one, just like their absence does not immediately equate with a safe, prosperous neighborhood.

One could argue that the mass arrest and incarceration of so many low-level offenders led to a deterioration in family ties (children were left with one parent or none, families suffered economic hardship, etc), further entrenching people in the poverty and/or disadvantages that most likely led them to crime in the first place. The echoes of Broken Windows can still be seen today. The death of Eric Garner – a man who was placed in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes – is an unfortunate but not unforeseen vestige of a policy that prioritized misdemeanors over almost anything else. It maintained law, but I do not believe it maintained a progressive form of order.


One thought on “Broken Windows Policing

  • February 26, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    This raises a lot of the key issues with Broken Windows that we’ll be discussing in the final weeks of the class. The really tragic thing about Eric Garner’s death is that there’s no evidence that he actually was even selling “loosies” on the day in question. Rather, he was known for doing so. The officers, including Daniel Pantaleo, who choked him to death, targeted not based on his actual behavior but his status, i.e. someone known to have sold loosies.

    I said one thought, but I actually have two. The second is that perceptions of disorder vary by context. Robert Sampson and his colleagues were able to run a huge randomized control experiment testing how people perceived disorder, and it turned out that very similar signs in the physical environment were perceived differently based on people’s preconceptions about the neighborhood, and such particularly correlated with race & poverty. So, the answer to whether or not a window is even “broken” depends on whether it is in a poor black neighborhood or a middle-class white one.


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