Broken Windows Policing Kills People



Jamelle Bouie, slate

Senseless deaths are a predictable result of cracking down on minor offenses.

Jason L. Riley is a Wall Street Journal columnist and vocal critic of what he calls “race hustlers”—“the second and third-tier types” who lead the civil rights groups of the present.

For him, the greatest barriers to black advancement aren’t economic disadvantage and persistent discrimination, they’re “anti-social behavior” and “counterproductive attitudes toward work, school, marriage, and so forth.”

Broken Windows Policing Kills People

Last Friday, Riley responded to Al Sharpton’s call for criminal justice reform with this Twitter broadside: “Liberals want to discuss black incarceration rates but not black crime rates,” he said. “Stop pretending the two are unrelated.” The implication is that black criminality is to blame.

There’s no question that relative to their population, black Americans hold a disproportionate share of arrests and convictions for crime. But it’s important we don’t confuse that with a propensity for crime. Put another way, black overrepresentation in crime statistics has as much to do with policing and the legal process as it does with the actual crimes committed.

It’s worth noting that just a few hours after Riley made his assertion, the New York City medical examiner ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide by chokehold. If you haven’t followed the coverage, Garner was killed in July during a struggle with Staten Island police officers. Because a witness (who was later arrested on gun charges) videotaped the encounter, we know that the 43-year-old father of six had just stopped a fight, and was agitated by the police presence. “Every time you see me, you try to mess with me,” he said to the officers, protesting prior treatment. “This stops today.” Within minutes, police had placed Garner in a chokehold and wrestled him to the ground, where he struggled, gasped for air, and died.

Bystanders would catch two other instances of police violence over the next week. In the first, an officer is seen stomping on the head of a man arrested for marijuana possession, and in the second, an officer is shown using a chokehold on a pregnant woman after she grilled food on the sidewalk outside of her home (which, apparently, is against the law in New York City).

The reason for these stops is a policing approach called “broken windows,” first articulated by scholars James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay and later adopted by the NYPD in 1993. Broken windows prioritizes cracking down on minor offenses on the theory that doing so can preempt serious crime. Or, to use the metaphor of the idea, actual broken windows create the appearance of disorder, which creates actual disorder as criminals take advantage of the inviting environment. Rather than wait for the serious crimes to begin, police should “repair the windows”—focus on petty crime like loitering, and you’ll stop the worse crime from taking hold.

It’s an elegant concept, but there’s little evidence it works. “Taken together,” notes a 2006 study from the University of Chicago, “the evidence from New York City and from the five-city social experiment provides no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship as hypothesized by Wilson and Kelling nor for the proposition that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources.” Yes, the massive New York crime decline of the 1990s coincided with broken windows policing, but chances are it had more to do with a reversion to the mean (“what goes up, must come down, and what goes up the most, tends to come down the most”) than any new approach.

If broken windows were just a waste of resources, it wouldn’t be a huge concern. But as a policy, broken windows has also had the effect of terrorizing black and Latino New Yorkers.

Perceptions of urban “disorder” are tied tightly to race and have been for more than a century (as detailed in sociologist Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America). As we’ve seen on a regular basis—from Jonathan Ferrell to Renisha McBride—people of color, and blacks in particular, are feared as criminal in ways their white counterparts aren’t.

For instance, in one test of people’s unconscious associations, researchers found that black males elicited the most negative reactions from white subjects. Likewise, in a 2009 survey on the question of blacks and violence, more than 30 percent of white respondents said that blacks were more violent than whites, and more than 40 percent said that “many” or “almost all” black men were violent, compared to less than 20 percent who said the same of black women or white men, and less than 10 percent who said the same of white women. Additionally, a study published this year found that—when comparing hypothetical felony acts by white, black, and Latino boys—police overestimated the age of black boys by nearly five years. In their eyes, a 13-year-old was an adult.

Under “broken windows,” these biases take center stage. They inform police conduct and lead to situations where blacks and Latinos face the brunt of aggressive policing. Odds are good that a group of black kids hanging out on a stoop will look more suspicious to police, regardless of their behavior. A recent analysis bears this out. According to the New York Daily News, which combed through recent police data from the city, blacks and Latinos account for the vast majority (81 percent) of the 7.3 million police summonses issued under broken windows since 2001.

These citations are minor—“consumption of alcohol on streets” and “bicycle on sidewalk”—but they produce frequent (and potentially dangerous) police encounters. For millions of black and Latino New Yorkers, the city is a literal police state, where officers patrol for papers and detain individuals on the slightest suspicion of illegal conduct.

Which brings us back to the role of black crime in mass incarceration. What the New York experience suggests—and what a wide array of research tells us—is that crime data is fundamentally incomplete. Accounts of who did what (who committed more murders, who committed more thefts) say nothing about the level of policing in a given community. Yes, blacks are arrested for more thefts than any other group, but that doesn’t tell us if African Americans committed more thefts. It’s possible blacks are just more likely to be arrested, and that if you subjected whiter zip codes (say, poor rural areas) to similar levels of policing, you’d have similar results. And while there are outliers—high murder rates in Chicago—those have more to do with the unique environment of the areas (high poverty, hyper-segregated neighborhoods, for instance) than the blackness of the residents. To say otherwise is to ignore the extent to which our assumptions of black criminality are embedded in the data we choose to collect and the strategies we choose to pursue.

This dynamic holds for other dimensions of crime. There are huge racial gaps in prosecutions and convictions. Compared to white males with comparable offenses, black and Latino males receive harsher sentences, serve greater prison time, and are more likely to be convicted. Crime for crime, you have a higher chance of going to prison (and for a longer time) as a brown-skinned offender than as a white one.

In other words, even if you ignore the problems on the policing side of law enforcement, you still have to contend with the disparate impact of a criminal justice system that funnels blacks and Latinos into prison out of proportion to their numbers among criminals.

In its write up of the broken windows data, the Daily News quotes one resident who gives a vivid picture of his daily surroundings:

My neighborhood is like it’s under martial law. We got all these rookie officers on each corner. These officers, they just run around and ask you for any excuse to ask you for your ID and write you a summons,” said Angel Garcia, 34, of East Harlem, waiting in line at summons court in lower Manhattan last month.

In this environment, where police are empowered to stop anyone for the faintest cause, violence is inevitable. Last month, Eric Garner was the victim, but it could have been anyone, because senseless deaths are a predictable cost of broken windows policing. It’s the trade-off. We’ll stop petty “disorder,” but at the price of dead bodies. And given what we know about our biases, those bodies will almost always be brown.

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