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Shattering Broken Windows

For decades, policing so-called ‘quality of life’ issues has had devastating effects. This approach must cease to exist.


Forty years ago, scholars James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published an essay in The Atlantic  in which they called for a new approach to public safety called “broken windows” policing. In this seminal essay, Wilson and Kelling argued that neighborhoods that fail to address manifestations of “disorder,” such as broken windows, reveal a lack of effective informal social control, thereby encouraging more serious forms of criminality. As Wilson and Kelling put it, “If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place.” Based on this premise, Wilson and Kelling called for a fundamental reorientation of policing, one that offers local governments a broad and flexible means of regulating public spaces and removing those deemed “disorderly” from contested public spaces.

Although the name of their theory ostensibly focuses on the built environment, it also targeted unwanted human behavior — particularly, as Wilson and Kelling put it, the behavior of “disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.” Any disruptive — or discomforting — behaviors committed by such persons were not seen by Wilson and Kelling as manifestations of extreme poverty, housing precarity, racial inequities, unmet behavioral health needs, or other institutional failures, but rather as “disorder” — a cause of diminished quality of life for other urban residents and a precursor of more serious crime. Over time, the theory was interpreted in ways that fueled other “zero tolerance” approaches to disorder and crime, as well as the systematic use of harmful police stops that came to be known as “stop-and-frisk.”

Many urban police departments enthusiastically embraced broken windows policing over the course of the 1980s and ‘90s. Where this occurred, officers were encouraged to consider misdemeanor offenses such as public intoxication and panhandling as very serious matters. This shift was enormously consequential. Implemented alongside the war on drugs, broken windows policing fueled a notable uptick in drug and misdemeanor arrests. Unsurprisingly, the widespread use of these aggressive tactics also contributed to racialized police violence, racial disproportionality in jail populations, and the arrest and incarceration of people experiencing homelessness and untreated mental illness.

George Kelling has since argued that this emphasis on arrest and punishment was not central to the approach he and Wilson advocated. “Broken windows was never intended to be a high-arrest program,” he wrote in 2015. “Although it has been practiced as such in many cities, neither Wilson nor I ever conceived of it in those terms.” But this argument is disingenuous because, as legal scholar Bernard Harcourt points out, “George Kelling himself measures broken-windows policing by the number of misdemeanor arrests performed by the police.”

After years of study, the efficacy of broken windows as a means of improving public safety remains unproven. By contrast, evidence of the harm it and related approaches to policing cause abounds. Research shows, for instance, that aggressive policing notably undermines the mental health and well-being of men living in neighborhoods in which officers conduct many stops, searches, and arrests. And no wonder: Misdemeanor arrests are clearly associated with police violence. As author and advocate Andrea Ritchie writes, broken windows policing

is what motivated police to repeatedly harass Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island resident who was killed earlier that summer by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, using a banned police chokehold during an encounter initiated over Garner’s alleged sale of loose cigarettes. And in 2015 it was what brought Baltimore police into contact with Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man who was initially stopped while allegedly fleeing from police officers in his low-income Black community—and who died after his spinal cord was severed while he was in police custody.

Even where overt police violence does not occur, broken windows policing directs attention to the potential for future criminality and thus leads, as scholar Tanya Erzen puts it, to a situation in which police believe “graffiti taggers, turnstile jumpers and kids in a public park are either already criminals, or simply criminals in the making.” Aggressive policing in low-income communities of color undermines residents’ quality of life, restructures how people go about their everyday routines, increases social isolation, and fuels significant racial disparities in arrest, including among youth. In many locales, the embrace of broken windows policing also facilitates the punishment and dislocation of marginalized urban residents, including people living unsheltered. Unsurprisingly, this approach to policing fuels mistrust of the police and legal estrangement in communities of color.

Although some police departments continue to invoke the logic of broken windows policing, much has changed over the past two decades. Advocates and academics have vigorously challenged the idea that aggressive police responses to behaviors such as selling loose cigarettes, panhandling, unauthorized camping, sex work, public drunkenness, and possession of drugs protects public safety. In fact, recent research indicates that non-prosecution of many misdemeanor arrests actually reduces the likelihood of future contacts with the criminal legal system. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to shed light on the risks police encounters and arrests pose to Black people in particular, and urged municipal governments to reduce police funding while investing in community-based alternatives.

Under the weight of these critiques, misdemeanor and drug-related arrests declined from the mid-2000s to 2020 in cities across the country (although notable racial disparities in such arrests persist). Moreover, some prosecutors have used their discretion to not file charges in certain cases even when arrests do occur. And since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, many municipalities have embraced alternative crisis response models based on the premise that police responses to behavioral health issues and extreme poverty are not only ineffective, but harmful.

In short, the hegemony of broken windows policing as a way of thinking about and pursuing public safety has been shattered. Nevertheless, the future of this orientation to policing and to public safety is uncertain. In fact, it is conceivable that broken windows policing may be rising from the ashes once again.

Some right-wing pundits never stopped advocating for broken windows policing, making the case that its decline fueled urban decay and harmed communities of color. Until very recently, these laments appeared to fall on deaf ears. But they have gained new traction in recent years amid rising homicide rates and growing concern about unsheltered homelessness. In many places, these concerns have been expressed as calls to “refund” the police. And in 2021, many politicians — including moderate Democrats — were elected to office in progressive cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle largely on the basis of their public safety platforms, which featured pledges to restore police authority to respond vigorously to perceived threats to public safety, small and large.

In this context, it is conceivable that broken windows policing will enjoy a renaissance in the near term — even, and perhaps especially, in blue cities. In Seattle, for example, newly elected Mayor Bruce Harrell campaigned on a largely carceral public safety platform, emphasizing his interest in funding the police more robustly and the need to hold people living unsheltered accountable if they decline to relocate to existing shelters. In New York City and San Francisco, Mayors London Breed and Eric Adams offered similar platforms and pledged to reinvigorate police responses to both low-level and serious crime. Interestingly, district attorneys in some of these cities are among the few public officials who are willing to express concern about a potential return to broken windows policing.

Many progressives are wringing their hands and decrying the backlash against reform that is unfolding across the country. This backlash is not complete, and some progressive prosecutors have remained in office despite recall efforts. Still, there are important lessons to be learned from this turn of events. In particular, the resurgence of interest in approaches like broken windows policing reflects, in part, an unwillingness of some progressives to take public safety seriously and to advocate for investments and policies that promote it while also curtailing reliance on the police and the criminal legal system.

The extent to which critics of mass criminalization and mass incarceration should focus on crime and build alternative approaches to public safety has been the subject of debate for some time. As political scientist Marie Gottschalk points out, large-scale decarceration in other countries such as Finland happened as a result of “comprehensive changes in penal policy over the short term, not sustained attacks on structural problems and the root causes of crime.”Based on this observation, she warns that “Americans need to be careful about not stepping into the abyss: the idea that ending mass incarceration must be predicated on tackling the root causes of crimes such as unemployment, poverty, and unconscionable levels of social and economic inequality stratified by race and ethnicity.” From this perspective, an insistence on addressing poverty, addiction, and violence may delay or even derail efforts to scale back the carceral state.

While this is a valid concern, it is also true that levels of poverty, social and racial inequality, housing precarity, addiction, and homicide in the contemporary United States are unique among wealthy countries. While tackling these social conditions is even more complex and difficult than reversing mass criminalization and mass incarceration, the values associated with racial equity, social justice, and human rights suggest that we should seek broader and more transformative changes that address the harm caused by these social ills and institutional failures wherever possible. Although the carceral state is neither a humane nor efficacious response to these social problems, simply scaling back the carceral state in and of itself will not meaningfully reduce the suffering these institutional failures cause to the most vulnerable and marginalized. For this reason, many progressive community-based organizations and advocates who seek to reduce carceral state power in communities of color have also prioritized anti-violence work, and these approaches hold significant promise as an alternative means of securing public safety. Unfortunately, though, other progressives tend to dismiss rather than address concerns about public safety.

Failure to address and prioritize public safety not only harms the most marginalized; it also sets the stage for political backlash, as recent developments suggest. Recognizing this does not imply that rates of crime or violence determine penal attitudes in a straightforward manner. To be sure, fear of crime and support for punitive responses to it are often untethered to objective measures of risk. For example, homicide rates are so racially skewed in the United States, and so geographically uneven, that few white residents face a meaningful risk of lethal violence and most go about their daily lives without fear of it. In fact, the recent uptick in homicide has overwhelmingly affected the Black community. Still, reported upticks in serious violence can trigger increased concern about crime and safety, which in turn can precipitate complex interpretive and political processes that result in higher levels of support for traditional, carceral approaches.

And like other panics of decades past, recent upticks in concern about public safety, predominantly in white communities, can be primarily driven by alarm over so-called disorder, which is often connected to homelessness. Unauthorized encampments, untreated mental illness, addiction, and related issues are increasingly visible and present across urban landscapes, particularly in West Coast cities. Historically, this reality has caused much public concern and triggered many 911 calls for service. These dynamics only intensified during the pandemic.

As sociologist Neil Gong points out, replacing mass criminalization and mass incarceration with “tolerant containment” — in which people earn the right to be homeless but not to housing, to use drugs but not to harm reduction services and behavioral health treatment, to non-prosecution but not to care and support — would represent a hollow victory indeed. Although it is tempting to dismiss concerns about disorder due to the race and class biases that clearly inform them, it is imperative that progressives reckon with the real harm that deep marginalization causes to both direct and indirect victims. For example, rather than working solely to protect people’s “right” to live unsheltered, progressives would do well to recognize and contend with the fact that unauthorized encampments pose real environmental and personal risks to the housed and the unhoused alike.

To achieve long-lasting change, the campaigns against mass criminalization and mass incarceration should be matched by a focus on, and increased investments in, public welfare and public safety, broadly defined. They must also be accompanied by recognition of the human costs of widespread institutional failures beyond the criminal legal system. The alternative is the abandonment of our most marginalized neighbors and the return to the rhetoric and practice of broken windows policing. This alternative is unacceptable.

Image: Mitchell Griest/Unsplash