'Broken Windows’ Is Broken
The Neighborhood That Policed Itself
When a police officers becomes a member of the community and not an occupying force, crime goes down. Almost every single study proves it. So why is the NYPD doing the opposite?
In the 1990s, a small, mostly black neighborhood in south Florida developed a problem: Neighborhood kids started selling drugs at a stop sign in a development of about 200 houses known as “Homes of Lawrence.” Palm Beach County Sheriff Richard P. Willie had a big, maybe unfixable problem: a lack of manpower.
But he also had an officer named Michael Gauger.
Since he joined the force in the '70s, Gauger had been chafing against what he felt was being asked of him in the line of duty.
“They wanted you in your car, riding around, putting miles on,” he told me. It was not how he envisioned his chosen career. He wanted to improve a community, not punch a clock.
“I didn’t do real well with that, because I always felt like being a good policeman was about networking and creating relationships, working with youth, working with businesses,and working with other branches of government,” he said.
He later found out that the kind of policing he was interested in had a name. It’s called community policing. It advocates two major sources of policing: Building partnerships, and problem solving together with the community being served.
It doesn’t advocate for much clock punching or rote, overtly procedural neighborhood trawling. Functionally, it runs more on trust than paperwork.
When drugs became a problem in Homes of Lawrence, Gauger, with Sheriff Willie’s blessing, decided to use those principles of community policing. Rather than instituting a Stop and Frisk policy, or sending a contingent of officers into the neighborhood, Willie and Gauger taught the Homes of Lawrence adults how to stand watch themselves, training them in the basics of passive-aggressive self-policing.
The neighborhood adults took up a vigil at the intersection, and their presence essentially intimidated the sale of drugs, solving the neighborhood’s problem for a long time.
By the end of it, this section of the Homes of Lawrence was effectively a self-policed neighborhood.
Seth W. Stoughton was one of the teenagers from early-'90s-era Homes of Lawrence, and he never forgot the Sheriff’s department’s subtle handling of the situation. Later, Stoughton went to college, and then dropped out to become a full-time police officer. After five years on the force, he went to law school. He is now a professor at University of South Carolina Law School, where he studies, among other things, police-community relations.
“I’m sure this experience completely colored my approach to community involvement in policing,” Stoughton said in a recent phone interview. “It was the most remarkable thing to me,” he recalled. “The police didn’t get overly involved. They came in and they basically provided training.”
Community policing is the antithesis of a method of policing like the Broken Windows policy, cooked up by two Harvard professors, published in the Atlantic Monthly, and vigorously implemented by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The theory alleges that the aggressive prosecution of small infractions, like public urination and turnstile jumping, leads to the prevention of larger crimes.
But in recent weeks, Broken Windows has come under fire. As the police ended their slowdown early in the month, New Yorkers—for the first time in thirty years—experienced what their lives would be like without Broken Windows. And contrary to Bratton’s predictions, crime did not appear to be skyrocket. If anything, it looked like crime went down.
Still, the NYPD was back to issuing petty summonses last week—and they appear to have been trying to make up for lost time. Summonses tripled and arrests doubled in New York City in the week after, with Bratton allegedly threatening to take away vacation time to make up for the slowdown’s loss of revenue.
While it’s too early to tell for certain how the slowdown will affect crime rates, many have begun to question the core tenets of Broken Windows—both for the way it disproportionately targets minorities and for the way it alienates communities from those in charge of protecting them.
Bratton’s implementation of Broken Windows over the past thirty years has translated into soaring numbers of misdemeanor arrests. A John Jay College of Criminal Justice report released in October analyzing New York City’s misdemeanor arrests found that from 1980 to 2013, the misdemeanor arrest rate in the city jumped by almost 200 percent.
“The NYPD believes that it will be possible, using more targeted stops and other policies, including Broken Windows, to keep the crime rate from rising and even push it lower,” Bratton recently wrote in a long defense of the practice in City Journal, co-authored by George Kelling, one of the practices originators.
But his claim is misleading. While crime has fallen radically in the days since Broken Windows was implemented, violent crime has fallen nationwide in the same timeframe.
And in New York City, violent crime stopped falling around 2002, leveling off at a time when the number of misdemeanor arrests continued to skyrocket.
The John Jay study also found that from 1980 to 2013, the dominant sentencing category was “Discharged.” The number of discharged cases went from 32 percent in 1980 to a whopping 49 percent in 2000, before dropping to 40 percent in 2012. In other words, almost half of all misdemeanor charges could not be substantiated in a court of law.
Bratton seemed to reference the John Jay study in his article. “These ivory-tower studies, frequently treated with reverence by the media, don’t prove what they purport to prove, and they fail to grasp how crime is managed in dense, urban settings,” he wrote. Instead, Bratton insisted after Eric Garner’s death that the NYPD go only where the 311 and 911 calls take them. Broken Windows is about protecting minorities, the Commissioner claimed.
But that claim, too, is somewhat disingenuous. “There’s a difference between being active in a neighborhood and being responsive to a neighborhood,” Stoughton said. “When you have officers who are really taking a hardline, broken-windows approach to things, they may be very active in a neighborhood, but they may not actually be responding at all to that neighborhood, or if they are responding, they are still responding very aggressively. It’s possible to respond to a community’s concerns in a way that community doesn’t like.”
“The police culture today is a crime fighting culture,” Stoughton elaborated.
And when you’re focused on crime prevention you tend to focus on the criminals, rather than the non-criminal community.
It’s a difference in priority, Stoughton explained. If you’re prioritizing public perceptions of police legitimacy, you’re going to act differently than if you’re prioritizing crime fighting. For example, policies like Stop and Frisk, no matter how ineffective, do result in a small number of arrests that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. But they take a deep toll on the community’s perception of the police.
“A police department that says, ‘Actually what we’re really concerned about is police legitimacy and whether the public trusts and cooperates with the police,’ might [also] say, ‘Well, we’re not going to make those arrests. We are going to acknowledge the fact that there are some crimes that we are not going to be able to prevent, or catch, because what matters to us is actually building trust with the community.”
Focusing on crime fighting, as opposed to a community’s perception of police legitimacy also changes the type of crimes a department is better at solving, Stoughton thinks. Crimes requiring witnesses, like burglaries and murders, are much less likely to be solved without community trust and participation. Indeed, most police executives blame a lack of cooperation by witnesses and even surviving victims of violent crime for the increase in unsolved crimes.
When a community feels alienated from the police, they stop trusting them, Stoughton says. This creates a negative feedback loop: The perceived illegitimacy of the cops decreases the cooperation of the citizens they police, which increases negative police behaviors which further decreases perceived legitimacy which decreases cooperation and so on. In fact, studies show it. One Rutgers study shows that the most important factor motivating people to cooperate with police and not break the law was the legitimacy of the police. “Crucially, police legitimacy had a stronger effect on these outcomes than the perceived likelihood of people being caught and punished for breaking the law,” one study from the U.K. found.
That’s another thing: Misdemeanor processing is largely informal and deregulated, which leads to an even deeper lack of trust. Another study found that “Innocent misdemeanants routinely plead guilty to get out of jail because they cannot afford bail.” The study found that the “misdemeanor phenomenon” reveals an important feature of the criminal system: “that due process and rule-of-law wane at the bottom of the penal pyramid where offenses are pettiest and defendants are poorest.”
It’s a key ingredient in the racialization of crime. As a Loyola Law School of Los Angeles study puts it, “misdemeanor processing is the mechanism by which poor defendants of color are swept up into the criminal system, i.e., “criminalized,” with little or no regard for their actual guilt.”
“There is a strong case that the collateral effects of those misdemeanor arrests (criminal record, monetary fines, short periods of incarceration leading to employment termination, etc.) make misdemeanors criminogenic,” Stoughton explained.
In other words, jailtime for misdemeanor arrests create more problems in the long run.
“If that’s correct, then aggressive enforcement action is, in the long term, increasing crime. At the same time, because of the racial disparities, it may be increasing crime most in the neighborhoods that the same tactics are also alienating.”
Still, Stoughton doesn’t see the NYPD slowdown with rose-colored glasses.
“The slowdown is frustrating,” he explained in an email. “Like many people, I want the NYPD and other police agencies to take a more comprehensive, deeper approach to dealing with quality of life problems (particularly now that the crime surge that originally justified aggressive ‘Broken Windows’ policing is many years behind us). But that’s not what’s happening. Instead of replacing aggressive policing with community engagement, the NYPD is replacing aggressive policing with aggressive inattention, and I don’t see that working out well for anyone in the long run.”
In south Florida, Sheriff Willie is now retired, but Michael Gauger is still the Assistant Deputy to the Sheriff in Palm Beach County. But he says that community policing has fallen out of favor recently.
“It’s just frustrating,” Gauger lamented. “Policing should be about relationships, not an occupying army.”
Under Richard Wille’s leadership in the early 1990s, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s department chose a model that responded to the Homes of Lawrence residents’ complaints about drugs in a way that the community felt was appropriate.
“We wanted to get people’s attention and get them to work with us,” Wille told me. “Once you help someone, and show them they can do things, they respect you more, and you respect them more.”