“Broken Windows” Policing under Attack

You may have seen one or more news articles recently which talk about something called “broken windows” policing. If you haven’t had any exposure to the concept, it can be a bit confusing. Broken windows theory says (or at least suggests) that maintaining well-ordered urban environments may stop additional vandalism and avoid an escalation into more serious crimes.

What’s behind the language is the idea that if you have a building with a few broken windows, leaving them broken will attract vandals to break more; this, the argument goes on, may eventually lead to those vandals breaking into the building. Same theory with litter. If you allow it to accumulate, they say, more people will litter; this will at some point leaving huge amounts of garbage all over the place, and this will lead to more serious crimes like breaking into cars.

Well, we’re not so sure about the logic behind the theory, which was coined by two academics. And opponents argue that not only is the theory unsound, implementing it has a widely disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics. The practice does have its supporters, however, notably New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio. In New York, we first saw the policy in action in response to waves of violent crime 20 or so years ago. But while the violence has been on the decline, the policy has actually escalated. And just what does the policy look like?

It looks like “stop and frisk”, and “zero tolerance.” It also looks like a chokehold death for a man suspected of selling loose cigarettes. And on an overall level, what it amounts to, in the view of those who oppose the policy, is overly aggressive enforcement against minor crimes, and sometimes against acts that are not crimes at all.

As for the theory behind the policy, crime rates have dropped in many places, and the existence (or not) of a broken windows policy seems to have had no impact on the decrease one way or the other. And the end result is this: last year there were close to 400,000 arrests in New York City alone, a near-record high.

George Vomvolakis Law Offices
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