Broken windows policing is back in the news after a New York City police officer put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold after accusing him of illegally selling cigarettes. Instead of placing this killing in the context of the NYPD’s long history of violent misconduct toward people of color, the New York Times and other media are trying to rationalize it as a byproduct of the “broken windows” crime prevention strategy.
In its August 10 article, “Author of ‘Broken Windows’ Policing Defends His Theory,” the Times correctly notes that “critics denounce the theory as neoconservative pablum resulting in overpolicing and mass incarceration for relatively minor offenses that disproportionately target poor, black and Hispanic people. Moreover, they say it was not derived from scientific evidence and its connection to the city’s drastic decline in major crime remains unproven.”
Actually, the lack of connection between NYC’s historic crime drop and broken windows policing has been conclusively disproven by prominent criminologist Franklin Zimring. In his book, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, Zimring shows that NYC’s crime drop occurred precisely by the police doing the opposite of what broken windows auteur James Q. Wilson recommended.
As I wrote in my 2012 review of Zimring’s book:
Zimring shows that James Q. Wilson’s widely popular and admired “broken windows” strategy—in which crackdowns on quality of life crimes allegedly reduce serious felonies—had little to do with NYC’s crime drop. Whereas NYC police decided to target “hot spots,” Wilson argued that the police should not concentrate resources in the highest crime areas “where the situation is hopeless.”
It should be obvious that concentrating resources in the areas where most crime occurs is essential for reducing citywide crime rates, yet Wilson’s opposite approach still gets credited in the popular press for reducing NYC crime.
Hot-spot policing was the key to NYC’s success, yet to this day former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other conservatives instead credit the broken windows strategy.
Two years after Zimring’s statistical rebuff of broken windows as a cause of NYC’s crime drop, the New York Times continues to give it credibility. And while critics of the policy are amply quoted, its August 10 article concludes with the claim from the theory’s co-author that broken-windows policing “produces another benefit beyond reducing crime…In an urbanized society, in a world of strangers, civility and orderliness is an end in itself.”
Who can be against “civility and orderliness”? It’s akin to ending an article about climate change with a denier claiming that the “science” is still unclear.
Given its lack of success in reducing major crimes, broken windows survives for one reason: to justify police harassment of racial minorities. That there is even a debate in NYC over the alleged public safety value of violently arresting someone for illegally selling cigarettes is a sad comment on the state of racial affairs in that city.
It’s sad because many thought Bill de Blasio’s election would change the NYPD’s racial harassment of minority men. It’s also sad because despite an unprecedented crime drop NYC’s white elite still fears racial minorities enough to back the type of police tactics that killed Eric Garner.It’s hard changing the engrained culture of police departments. Bill de Blasio has had less than a year on the job. Some believe the mayor has not been sufficiently outspoken about the Garner killing, but it’s what mayors tell police privately that can have the biggest impact. Mayor de Blasio knows this issue is critical to his core political base, and that he must prevent further such incidents.
NYC aside, the media must stop promoting the arrest of racial minorities for minor offenses. Broken windows policing does not reduce violence or serious crime, and the media has no business implying otherwise.