More Evidence that Broken Windows Policing Doesn’t Work

by lizard

A year and a half ago, Kevin Drum wrote a fascinating article for Mother Jones examining the connection between crime rates and leaded gasoline. I wrote this post looking at the potential impact of Drum’s article on a social theory of policing that has spread across the country known as Broken Windows. This theory got some more attention last January when New York city Mayor Bill DeBlasio brought William Bratton on to oversee the NYC police department:

William J. Bratton, tapped by Bill de Blasio to head the NYPD, was previously Rudy Giuliani’s first police commissioner in 1994—and before that, the head of the New York City Transit Police. Together with Giuliani, “America’s Top Cop” (as Bratton called himself in his 1998 memoir) oversaw the adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy for petty crimes, and a renewed focus on “quality of life” issues. Bratton established the controversial CompStat system, still in use today, and he has been called the “architect” of stop-and-frisk.

Many of Bratton’s tendencies to uncover and punish low-level crimes so aggressively can be traced back to his guiding philosophy, the broken windows theory. It’s a concept that social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling first described in their 1982 article in The Atlantic. They argued the significance of the link between disorder and crime. The “broken window” is a symbol of unaccountability. If one window in a building is broken and left unfixed, they argued, it is likely that the rest of the windows will be broken soon, too.

The idea is that people—specifically potential criminals—take cues from their surroundings and calibrate their behavior based on what they see. If a city block is litter-free and its buildings are well-maintained, people will be less likely to litter or vandalize there, because they will sense that they will be held accountable if they do so. “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,” Wilson and Kelling write, “rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

Bratton and others expanded the meaning of this metaphorical window to include the common, victimless but troublesome crimes that occur every day in urban areas. Order begets accountability, the theory goes; disorder begets crime. So, enforcing the smallest laws could prevent the large ones from being broken.

In Los Angeles, the “quality of life” approach to criminalizing benign behavior, like sitting on a sidewalk, has been challenged, but not in court. Instead it’s a homeless grandmother’s stubborn refusal to comply that has exposed the limitations and, more importantly, the cost of enforcing low-level ordinances:

Here’s an interesting use of public resources: as part of a decade-long effort to “clean up” Skid Row in Los Angeles (i.e. run the homeless out of the area to ease development), the city of LA has spent at least a quarter of a million dollars arresting, prosecuting and jailing just one homeless woman, 59-year-old Ann Moody, mostly for sitting on a public sidewalk.

Moody has been arrested 59 times in six years, reports the Los Angeles Times. She’s spent 15 months in jail since 2002. As the article points out, Moody has been arrested more than any other person in the entire city of Los Angeles.

The 59-year-old grandmother earned that distinction by flouting part of the municipal code that restricts sleeping, lying or sitting on a public sidewalk between 9pm and 6am, although she’s also been bagged for selling cigarettes. She explained her bad behavior to the Times: “We’re human beings, not to be pushed around like cattle,” she said. “We have a right to be stationary.”

Police and local business leaders disagree with Moody’s interpretation of her human rights. Emails between members of a business association and LAPD officials refer to efforts to roust her as “Operation Bad Moody.” In the emails they pat each other on the back for sending her to jail and seem to delight in the fines she racks up. There’s even a hilarious joke about an Ann Moody Halloween costume. Police officials detail their Moody-fighting strategies, like tracking her to make sure she’s in exact compliance with a court order that she stay 200 yards from a particular street.

A quarter of a million dollars spent on ONE woman? That’s insane. So is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Ordinances, no matter how they are crafted, will NEVER make poor homeless people disappear. Here’s more from the article:

In 2006, the city launched the Safer Cities Initiative. Brainchild of then-Los Angeles police chief William Bratton, Safer Cities sent 50 extra officers to Skid Row with instructions to bust people for pretty much everything, from jaywalking and open containers to prostitution and drug crimes. Safer Cities was inspired by the “broken-windows” theory of crime fighting (Bratton has been a career-long booster), which claims that busting people for nuisance and low-level crimes helps prevent more serious criminal activity.

An assessment of Safer Cities conducted by Blasi and the UCLA School of Law Fact Investigation Clinic found that the LAPD handed out 12,000 citations in the first year. Most were for pedestrian violations. Blasi points out that the inability to pay fines, or show up to court on time due to mental illness or substance abuse, tends to lead to arrest warrants, shuttling the indigent away from homelessness resources and into the jails.

“The goal of the Safer Cities Initiative is to force poor people of color to move,” says Blasi. “When they don’t move, they go into the criminal justice system.”

Even before the official launch of Safer Cities, Bratton’s LAPD made use of a strict anti-camping ordinance to break up homeless encampments in the area, confiscating property and busting homeless people for laying or sitting on the sidewalk. In 2006, a federal appeals court ruled that the city could no longer arrest people for sleeping and sitting in public, especially given the city’s lack of adequate shelter for the homeless. Under an eventual court settlement, the homeless were allowed to sleep in the street at night, but can be busted for illegal lodging between 6am and 9pm.

Although Skid Row’s homeless population dropped when the Safer Cities Initiative was first introduced, it went right back up after the financial collapse. “There are more people living on Skid Row now than when [the program] began,” says Blasi. “Some people move, some recover. But Skid Row is replenished with a vast pool of incredibly poor people.”

Sending them off to jail does not appear to have solved the area’s homelessness problem.

Maybe it’s time to try something else.

  1. Lets hope they don’t all follow your path of purchasing a gun.

  1. 1 Broken Windows Policing in Missoula May Require a Bigger Jail | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] While Jason is acknowledging the real scope of the problem, Fred the windbag is doing what he does best: avoiding any responsibility by pointing fingers. He is also acknowledging that 2% of the jail population doesn’t need to be there. I’m not sure where Fred gets his figures, but there are clearly people in jail who are there because they are poor, mentally ill, and/or addicts. And why are they there? Because of a failed approach of policing petty crimes called Broken Windows. […]

  2. 2 Applying “Broken Windows” Theory to Wall Street | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] familiar with Broken Windows Theory as it relates to policing because I’ve put out posts like this one and this […]

  3. 3 Unintended Consequences | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] unintended consequences of the NYPD work stoppage, which raises the following question: if stopping broken windows arrests doesn’t result in anarchy, why resume it? From the […]

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