CI: “Broken Windows”/Broken Lives

July 23, 2014 at 6:28 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.


“Broken Windows”/Broken Lives and the Ruse of “Public Order” Policing
by nancy a heitzeg

The recent murder of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD brings to light again the never-ending unanswered questions. Unchecked police killings of mostly Black Men – one every 28 hours. Rampant racial profiling, most recently high-lighted in Floyd v City of New York. Excessive use of force, even in the handling of non-violent crime. Deadly restraint tactics, such as the choke-hold  that killed Michael Stewart, killed Anthony Baez, and was supposedly banned in NYC despite being the on-going subject of more than 1000 civilian complaints.

“Brother Eric Garner No Longer Breathes Courtesy Of Banned NYPD Chokehold. Rest In Power.” Spike Lee

Lurking behind all these atrocities is the flawed theory and fatal practice that makes it all possible: “Broken Windows” and public order policing. Widely promoted but rarely publicly critiqued, in light of Eric Garner, let’s take a closer look.

Broken Windows: Flawed Theory and Practice

Broken Windows theory and the subsequent proliferation of “public ordering/quality of life/order maintainence” policing emerges from the seminal 1982 article, Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety (George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, Atlantic Monthly). The theory basically claims that  “disorder” leads to community withdrawal, loss of informal social control, and then, to more serious crime. One unattended broken window leads to more “physical disorder”, then to “social disorder” in the form of public drunkenness, panhandlers, the homeless, taggers, public urinators, squee-gee men, and more, and finally in “criminal invasions” of neighborhoods that seem abandoned, unkempt or out of control. Perhaps, most importantly, the theory posits too that policing can prevent this, that a rigorous/repressive approach — sometimes “zero tolerance” – to public order crimes is necessary in order to curtail serious violent and property crimes.

bw PNGBroken Windows has always been theoretically problematic. (See Assessing “Broken Windows”: A Brief Critique by Randall G. Shelden and Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race and Disorder in New York City  by Jeffery Fagan and Garth Davies for excellent overviews). It emerges from the tradition of criminology which searches vainly for individual and environmental causes of crime while ignoring the vast array of well-documented structural contributors such as poverty, unemployment, lack of quality education, and racism. Further, broken windows  relies heavily on long discredited classical deterrence theory and the notion that participation in crime represents an individualized “rational choice” that can be averted by the threat of punishment, or policing.

This certainly did not dampen the appeal of this theory for those who saw the opportunity it offered for expanded police patrol and resources. Nor did it prevent police departments — most notably NYPD under the  former and now current again Police Commissioner William Bratton — from rushing to implementation of this “theory” that was supported by neither logic nor data. Teamed up with then Mayor Rudy Giuiliano, Bratton claimed to have “re-captured” the subways from fare dodgers and the homeless, and then turned attention to the streets armed with both zero tolerance tactics to search for drugs and guns, and a new form of crime mapping called “Compstat,” a computer system that provides data for each precinct on arrests, complaints and other information about crime. In tandem, the two claimed credit for the decrease in New York City crime, using dubious data, but plenty of PR.

It should be noted that despite the claims that public order policing tactics had a direct impact on crime rates in NYC and elsewhere; there is little to no evidence to support this. Beyond this, the flawed and continued fixation with the ostensible connections between police practices and the reality of crime is misguided – there isn’t one. Crime rates operate independently of police and criminal justice system practices, rising and falling according to larger social conditions. Don’t take it from me –  two of the top researchers on the police, David Bayley and Lawrence Sherman state it simply:

“ The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life.”

What is widely known, is this: the police have the power to destroy and disrupt community, to harass individuals and entire groups of people without legal cause, injure, maim and kill with impunity and little fear of recourse. All in the name of law and order.

Broken Windows makes that even easier, and in NYC, the result was, not a  police induced decrease in crime, but rather an increase in police killings of citizens and civilian lawsuits /complaints.

Broken Windows: Racial Profiling and Gentrification in an Era of “Color-blindness”

The reality of public order policing in NYC and elsewhere has been “harassment” policing, which has targeted communities of color and the poor.  The rise of Broken Windows theory and related police practices neatly coincides with the War on the Poor, extensive criminalization of poverty/homelessness, Black motherhoodappearance and the use of public space, the escalation of the War on Drugs and attendant mass incarceration. It too provides a convenient “color-blind” cover for warrant-less pretextual stops of “suspicious” people (read Black), mass arrests for minor offenses, and sweeps of  entire communities. “Disorder” became the new proxy for race, and public order policing maintains the literal and figurative boundaries of whiteness. This certainly became clear via stop/frisk data revealed in Floyd v City of New York: over 86 percent of the stops were of Black or Latino individuals. Still Bratton’s successor, Ray Kelly, argued that Blacks were'”under-stopped”, despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of the people stopped were released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest.

Money matters here too, as it always does, and public order policing offers a major tool  in reclaiming space for economic interests vested in gentrification. In the Giuilani-Bratton 1990s, public order policing was the central tactic in the so-called “clean-up” of Times Square, pushing out the “disorderly” regulars to the city margins to make the space “safe” for the Disneys, the well-to-do and white,  and out of town tourists. This trend continues unabated in NYC and elsewhere. Bratton, of course, took his tactics to Los Angeles, where the “Safer Cities Initiative” displaced thousands of low income people of color in service of the gentrification of Skid Row. Observers note:

Longtime residents and community organizers see what is happening on Skid Row as an extreme example of what is happening in cities across the United States: as predominantly white middle- and upper-middle-class people find urban centers increasingly desirable places to live, gentrification displaces lower-income communities of color. Policing strategies such as “broken windows” are often used to facilitate gentrification, resulting not only in displacement but increased incarceration of poor people of color.

 Spike Lee on Gentrification (Live in Brooklyn)

Expect more of the same. Less 100 days after his return as Police Commissioner, Bratton was meeting with real estate elites and retired US Army General Stanley McChrystal , touting a slideshow comparing crime rates with local real estate values, and encouraging still more collusion between the police and the military in support of poor doors, in pursuit of panhandlers, jaywalkers, food vendors or teenagers dancing on a train for money.

Coming soon too to a town near you.

Whose “Quality of Life” ?

Broken Windows theory and the public order police tactics that have sprung from it have proven to be disastrous for communities of color. Under the color-blind guise of “safety” and “quality of life”, white well – off property owners are protected from “disorder”, spared the horror of having to refuse a panhandler or step over a drunk on the street. Meanwhile those deemed to be indicative of “disorder” themselves are displaced,  endlessly policed, surveilled, brutalized, arrested just for being alive.

Eric Garner is dead because of public order policing. Murdered for Standing While Black and Suspected – of what? Selling loose cigarettes for 50 cents each. Can the general public finally come out of the brain-washed fog of fear to see how absurd, how obscene this actually is?

From the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement Statement on the Murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD:

The ‘broken windows’ philosophy of policing, which purports that focusing resources on the most minor violations will somehow prevent larger ones, has consistently resulted in our rights being violated. We demand the criminal indictment and termination of the officers who unnecessarily attacked and killed Eric Garner. We also demand that the NYPD end the era of broken windows and militarized policing which has brought tragedy and mistrust of the police to many of our communities. We send our deepest condolences to the family of Eric Garner and support their struggle for justice in this case.

Broken Windows theory and public order policing is built and perpetuated on nothing but a ruse and many lies – it is profiling and apartheid, called by another name. Let the last words of Eric Garner mean more than just his last breath:

“It Stops Today.”

Seeta moderator

Once again, thanks so much for this Nancy. The heartbreaking murder of Eric Garner and the abject negligence displayed by the EMT are too much to bear.


"Broken Windows" policing was introduced with a massive fanfare of publicity and media attention.  I hope readers know that James Q. Wilson, with other cronies, also fanned the flames of "tidal waves of juvenile superpredators from the 'inner cities'" BS in the 90s.  (And  now these folks announce they're in the forefront of criminal justice "reform.")

Thanks, Nancy.


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