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Broken Windows

A “broken windows” based hot spots policing approach is a disorder reduction tactic used by some law enforcement agencies in high crime neighborhoods. The strategy is based on the “broken windows” theory of crime, which suggests that crime is likely to flourish in areas with high levels of physical and social disorder. It entails the use of broken windows policing, also known as disorder policing or order maintenance policing, which focuses resources on small areas with high crime rates (hot spots) to produce a crime-reduction effect throughout the larger area.

Hot spots policing is based on three related theoretical perspectives on spatial concentrations of crime: rational choice theory (Cornish and Clarke 1987), routine activities theory (Cohen and Felson 1979), and environmental criminology (Brantingham and Brantingham 1991). Hot spots policing allows law enforcement agencies to focus limited resources in areas where crime is most likely to occur. Concentrating limited resources on a small number of high-crime areas that generate a disproportionate share of crime is thought to represent a more efficient way to allocate resources than other less focused approaches.

The broken windows theory, which argues that police can prevent crime by addressing disorderly neighborhood conditions, including both physical and social disorder (Wilson and Kelling 1982). Left untreated, such conditions can cause fear and withdrawal among community members. This, in turn, can lead to a decrease in informal social controls (or a perceived decrease by offenders). According to the theory, disorder creates the conditions under which crime is allowed to thrive.

In 1990 the subways were a symbol of New York - the underground graffiti, crime, and disorder were emblematic of an aboveground city that had become so parlous that it was driving America’s crime rate. That year was crime’s apogee and the city’s nadir. In 1990, the city accounted for 2.9 percent of the nation’s population and 9.6 percent of the nation’s homicides and this at a time when the whole nation was more violent. By 2013, those figures were 2.7 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively. The city, once the site of a tenth of the country’s murders, now literally had less than its share.

The term Broken Windows comes from an eponymous 1982 article in the Atlantic, written by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. In brief, Kelling and Wilson asserted that unaddressed disorder encourages more disorder. From that follows crime, then increasingly serious crime, and finally violence. This criminogenic progression existed irrespective of a neighborhood’s demographics. As Kelling and Wilson wrote, “Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

An environment that is filled with graffiti, deterioration, trash, and abandoned cars and that is unsafe and subject to vandalism may be a signal that there are no rules and that no one cares. Alcohol outlets may contribute to this environment, serving as places for loitering and public drinking. Given the context of an environment that tolerates behaviors that would otherwise be considered antisocial, there may be few reasons not to engage in high-risk sexual and drug-use behaviors, since there are no traditional standards that might result in reputations being tarnished. An uncared-for environment may indicate that self-care is not a priority; persons with symptoms may ignore them rather than seek help. A developmental, contextual perspective would support the idea that as neighborhood conditions deteriorate, the range of behaviors that are considered acceptable expands.

Beginning in 1990, the Chief of the New York City Transit Police, William Bratton applied these ideas to crime in the New York City transit system. Transit Police wouldn’t ignore the little things. Fare evasion and graffiti would no longer be considered too petty to address. In fact, Transit Police focused on them as vigorously as on serious crimes like robberies, if not more so.

Bratton later argued "serious crime was more likely to occur in a lawless environment—and ubiquitous low-level disorder signaled lawlessness even more than serious crime, which was less common. We also quickly learned that the serious criminals committed petty crimes, too. When they weren’t committing robberies or assaults, they were hopping turnstiles, unlawfully moving between cars, and generally diminishing the quality of life that should have been enjoyed by other, fare-paying riders. A subway criminal arrested for a misdemeanor rather than a felony wouldn’t be going to prison, but he wouldn’t be victimizing anyone for a while, either."

Broken windows proposed that disorderly behavior left unchecked, even if it seemed harmless, made cities “vulnerable to criminal invasion.” Its implementation by New YOrk Mayor Rudy Giuliani was an attempt to lower crime by fundamentally changing the behavior of New Yorkers and the culture of New York. It would, for the next 20 years, reshape the average New Yorker’s life. Rule breakers, no matter how inconsequential, would be arrested and jailed. Gone, after repeated arrests and considerable fines, was anyone who bent or broke the law (well, anyone in minority and lower-income neighborhoods, that is), no matter how gray or small the offense: The squeegee men, folks littering, anyone with marijuana, graffiti artists, prostitutes, panhandlers, and subway-fare jumpers.

Critics of Broken Windows regularly conflate it with “zero-tolerance tactics,” but Bratton claimed to have never equated the two, nor did George Kelling, and neither did Jack Maple or James Q. Wilson. In their Atlantic article, while discussing order maintenance on public transportation, Kelling and Wilson noted that “the enforcement need involve nothing more than ejecting the offender (the offense, after all, is not one with which a booking officer or a judge wishes to be bothered).”

Order maintenance has the potential for abuse. Vagrancy and loitering laws, for example, have been used to deny minorities their rights and to abuse citizens, especially African-Americans. Police administrations’ limited ability to shape police street practice persists despite management’s preoccupation with control. This preoccupation has fostered a bitterly anti-management culture in many police departments. In this culture officers are alienated from the citizens they serve, support a “stay out of trouble” (by doing nothing) mentality, and, while disapproving of abuse and corruption, nonetheless protect deviant officers in the name of occupational solidarity

The forces that generate disorder also generate crime. It is the structural characteristics of neighborhoods, as well as neighborhood cohesion and informal social control—not levels of disorder—that most affect crime. Where collective efficacy was strong, rates of violence were low regardless of sociodemographic composition and observed disorder.

In New York, a stop-and -frisk policy, which was believed to deter individuals from carrying weapons, knowing that they could be stopped at any time if the police deemed the individuals as “suspicious.” This aggressive policing policy, however, was disproportionately pursued in minority communities, and a great majority of the stop and frisk victims were black and Hispanic.

As seen in New York City, the “Broken Windows Theory,” coupled with zero-tolerance policing, led to mass incarceration of people of color for minor nonviolent offenses. Such policies strip away an officer’s discretion and instead promote enforcement which incentivizes police conduct that is detrimental to good community relations. Aggressive enforcement and poor community ties result in a severe blow to procedural justice. Rather than perceive the system as fair, people in certain communities feel it does not serve them, rather actually victimizes them.

On July 17, 2014 a young unarmed African American named Eric Garner died as the apparent result of the use of a banned chokehold by officers in the New York Police Department (NYPD). Officers claimed they targeted Mr. Garner for allegedly selling loose or untaxed cigarettes. Captured on a video by a passerby, Garner’s tragic death shows that for communities of color, including women and LGBT people of color, immigrants and low income communities, racial profiling has been and continues to be a constant reality of life, often with tragic and deadly consequences.

At its core, racial profiling is based on the assumption that people of specific groups are more likely to commit certain kinds of crimes than others. Be it the targeting of motorists for “driving while black or brown” (DWB), stopping, questioning and searching pedestrians, targeting individuals for extra screening at airports, or conducting unconstitutional and unsubstantiated surveillance of people in their home, places of worship or within their communities, these abuses are all too commonplace





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Page last modified: 19-08-2017 18:28:40 ZULU