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Broken Windows Policing Theory

Lucy Nicholson: Reuters

Since the February 26, 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, the repeated pattern of police killings of unarmed young African-American men is generating a tide of angry resistance and unanswered questions. The underlying law enforcement doctrine known as "broken windows policing" has come under its greatest challenge in two decades.

On Sunday protestors gathered recently outside the LAPD headquarters demanding answers in the police shooting of Ezell Ford earlier this week. According to eyewitnesses and media reports, Ford, 25 years old, was shot multiple times while facedown in the street. The LAPD reported that Ford "succumbed to his injuries." It was the 303rd "officer-involved shooting" in Los Angeles since 2007.

Triggering the latest surge of outrage was the police shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two days before the Los Angeles killing. Brown was stopped for walking in the street by a police officer who wound up shooting him an undisclosed number of times. Law enforcement sources claimed that Brown went after the officers' weapon as it was being drawn, but eyewitness deny the charge and a citizen video reveals the shooting while Brown fled, turned around and put his hands up.

Led by MSNBC and grass-roots postings, the public spotlight on Ferguson showed a massive military mobilization meant to intimidate and suppress local residents. Protests by young people raising their hands under the slogan "Hands Up Don't Shoot" spread everywhere. Attorney General Eric Holder quickly intervened behind the scenes. Demands for more black police officers and community oversight were voiced on the air.

While Ferguson unfolded, the public was still watching coverage of the New York police choking to death of Eric Garner, 43 on July 17, while he cried that he couldn't breathe.

Trayvon Martin died because he was in "the wrong place" at night. Garner was killed for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Michael Brown and a friend were pulled over for walking in the middle of the street.

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That these are far from isolated incidents was illustrated this month by a New York Times investigation of 129 serious beatings by guards of young inmates, many of them diagnosed with mental illnesses. The beatings often took place after inmates already were handcuffed after forceful cell extractions. Frequently the inmates were locked up on minor offenses or because of their inability to afford bail.

These cases, and countless other like them, are based on the widely accepted police doctrine that minor disorders must be suppressed to prevent violent crimes and felonies from occurring. In brief, if a single window is left broken in a neighborhood, more broken windows will follow until a state of complete disorder prevails. First enunciated by professors James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, the broken windows theory served as the underpinning of a huge police buildup and mass incarceration program targeting young men of color for minor offenses, including black men grooming, a reminder of the use of "loitering" ordinances by southern police to enforce segregation in the South.

Seized by Republicans, neo-conservatives, and many Clinton Democrats, the theory categorized a whole younger generation said to be inevitably producing six percent of "super-predators" who were beyond redemption by the time they were barely out of their diapers. The same doctrine underlay the "Willie Horton" ads used by George Bush in his 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis. It long underpinned the Drug War's assumption that marijuana use led to homicidal addictions.

Even today, the LAPD and other police departments utilize more resources for stopping, interrogating and arresting young people of color on minor offenses than any other priority. An LAPD study commissioned by Chief William Bratton, a main proponent of broken windows policing, showed that arrests for minor offenses in LA rose from 587,000 to 875,204 in 2008. Pedestrian stops doubled while motorist stops increased 40 percent. The 2009 study by Harvard University experts explained that LAPD was using its managerial discretion to move "more aggressively for less serious crimes…the number of juveniles arrested for Part Two [ed . note: less serious] offenses is about twice what it was in 1990." An updated analysis is expected from the LAPD's current inspector general.


James Q. Wilson, who wrote that there are no "underlying causes" of crime, has passed away. Hi co-partner Kelling remains at New York's Manhattan Institute, the conservative think tank, where this week he said the latest rounds of criticism and pressure came from "small groups that I would consider pretty radical."

It is important to remember that nearly all the ghetto rebellions (or "urban disorders" in official-speak) of the late 1960’s were triggered by such "minor infractions", not by sniper conspiracies as often claimed. The 1968 Kerner Report summarized the evidence of how scores of the disorders began over these seemingly small brutalities. The 1967 Newark upheaval, in which 26 people died in a single week, began when a cab driver named John Smith was pulled over because of a broken tail light and was roughed up by Newark police.

In light of the evidence, the broken windows theory should be scrapped as deeply flawed and probably an unconstitutional form of racial profiling and selective prior restraint against young people. It has expanded to infect US foreign policy and counter-terrorism across the world, most obviously in the use of drone strikes targeting images of young Muslim males gathered on street corners. In one notorious example, the video of a July 2007 targeted killing of a dozen young Iraqis was released by WikiLeaks and later confirmed by the Pentagon. The militarization flows both ways, with the federal government selling armored vehicles, helicopters, night goggles and body armor, and building secret databases, in the name of fighting "terrorism" at home.

tom hayden

Tom Hayden
The Peace Exchange