Fixing the 'broken windows' of police

The killings of blacks by police in 2014 will continue to stir reform in 2015. One idea is to apply the crime-busting strategy known as ‘broken windows’ to police themselves, accepting zero tolerance of even minor abuses.

AP Photo
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, and NYPD police commissioner Bill Bratton stand on stage during a New York Police Academy graduation ceremony Dec. 29.

As 2014 rolls into 2015, so, too, will efforts to prevent the type of police killings of blacks that happened this year in urban areas such as New York, St. Louis County, and Cleveland. Police across the United States continue to face calls for zero tolerance of even minor injustices against minorities.

Call it “broken windows” in reverse.

For nearly three decades, American police departments have steadily adopted the “broken windows” strategy first put forth by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 Atlantic article. The scholars argued that the appearance of even low-level disorder, such as broken windows, can lead people to believe they can get away with crime. If police were aggressive in cracking down on “panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes,” and others, an appearance of order would improve public safety.

But what about applying it to police departments? That idea is seen in demands to better punish police for even minor abuses, record arrests with body cameras, and assign independent prosecutors to handle cases against cops.

The authors of the broken-windows theory themselves worried that some police might single out communities by race and become “the agents of neighborhood bigotry.” Many critics cited that worry in the Eric Garner chokehold case last July in New York. Police had approached Mr. Garner for a broken-windows crime – selling untaxed cigarettes. His resistance to arrest then escalated badly into a tragic response by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Many studies have validated broken windows as a crime stopper. It is even endorsed by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Democrat came into office in early 2014 and quickly curbed the practice of stop and frisk promoted by his two predecessors, mainly because it was seen as relying on racial profiling. But as for the broken-windows approach, he said it has helped make New Yorkers “the safest we’ve ever been.”

His police commissioner, William Bratton, has also co-written a long defense of the strategy in City Journal magazine. He argues that his officers use the approach only with community support and with no racial intent. They rely on data about misdemeanors to target troubled neighborhoods. One poll shows widespread support for the practice. And fewer minorities commit bigger crimes, Mr. Bratton asserts, because they are caught early on for minor crimes and are often given only a fine or offered treatment or other help.

Yet the commissioner also says police must strengthen ties with  their communities. The starting point for interactions between police and citizens is “mutual civility,” as Bratton points out. “Crime prevention and order maintenance must be balanced by an equally important function: protecting and observing the rights of citizens,” he wrote.

Indeed, police in the US are probably even more mindful of that need after the murder of two New York officers in December by a man claiming to avenge Garner’s death.

One US city that has tackled police abuse head-on is Cincinnati following riots there in 2001 after the killing of a black man by a white officer. To reduce a perception of racial bias in enforcement and immunity for police, the Ohio city launched the “Cincinnati Collaborative.” It put in place better citizen review over police, beefed up prevention of crime through means other than law enforcement, and pushed police to be closer to the community.

Broken windows, by dealing with even small offenses by either police or civilian lawbreakers, can create the right balance between order and justice in American cities. The need for that balance was summed up nicely by Jesus in his parable about the unrighteous steward. Whoever is trusted with little can also be trusted with much, he said, and whoever is unjust with little will be unjust also with much.

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