Why 'Broken-Windows Policing' Never Works

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In 1982, sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the theory of broken windows policing.” The name “broken windows” comes from the idea that if a window in a building is broken, the rest of the building will soon fall apart, because people will believe the building is not worth caring for.

According to this theory, the same idea goes for neighborhoods.

Broken windows policing suggests that criminalizing minor infractions such as vandalism, loitering, jaywalking and fare evasion will reduce the number of more serious crimes that occur in a neighborhood. Essentially, if people know there are consequences for small crimes, they won’t even venture towards committing larger ones.

In theory alone, this notion does not seem a far-fetched one.

It is hard for hypotheticals to seem dangerous.

In the 1990s, under the mayoral leadership of Rudy Giulani, the New York Police Department (NYPD) wholeheartedly embraced the broken windows theory. A practice of “zero tolerance” became the way of the NYPD. Minor infractions became cause for full blown arrest, often leading to cases of police violence.

It was the embracement of broken windows policing that gave way to the detrimental practice of stop-and-frisk in New York City (NYC).

Of course, there is an extreme racial bias to this theory. Buildings with broken windows tend to reside in low-income neighborhoods which, especially in urban environments, tend to be populated by a majority of people of color. That is to say, those suffering under the brutality of broken windows policing are mostly Black and Brown. At the height of stop-and-frisk in 2011, 87 percent of those stopped were Black or Latinx, while only 9 percent were white.

The broken windows theory quickly became an excuse for police to arrest and brutalize people of color, with the NYC government going so far as to institute police officers in predominantly Black elementary, middle and high schools. These are armed men and women without any sort of adolescent or mental health training patrolling hallways as they would a prison.

The effects have been detrimental.

A study by Harvard’s Department of Sociology found that in NYC schools where police presence was increased, test scores and attendance dropped among Black boys as young as 11 years old.

While an abundance of police officers remain in schools, serving a stark reminder of the ever prevalent school to prison pipeline, millions of schools do not even have nurses. According to research from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker. The schools that do have these resources are still grossly underfunded.

While calls to defund the police prevail, we must look at concrete ways to do this. One of many is the removal of police officers from schools, which cities such as Minneapolis and Portland have already done. It is not a radical idea that gun wielding officers not be in charge of disciplining children, it is a necessary step America must take.

Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, wrote a piece for The Appeal providing actionable policy goals for the movement to defund the police. Many of them are connected under a common theme of removing responsibilities from police they are not equipped to handle, and rerouting those emergency calls to those who are. An example of this would be creating a national emergency response service specifically for people experiencing a mental health crisis, where mental health professionals respond instead of untrained police officers.

Yesterday, Shaun broke down the first five steps we can take in defunding the police. He breaks down the last five in today’s episode of The Breakdown.