Broken Windows policing: The key to urban renewal

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If Boston is serious about urban renewal, it may want to bring back one of the now defunct policies of the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino: Broken Windows policing.

Broken Windows theory holds that enforcing public order laws — such as laws against graffiti, trespassing, and illegal street vending — reduces both the fear of crime and crime itself, and thus makes for safer communities.

Some of its strongest proponents have included Mayor Menino and former Boston Police Commissioner William Bratton.

In the 1990s, as Police Commissioner in New York, Bratton, along with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, literally transformed New York City by cleaning up the subways, reducing petty crime, and cracking down on “squeegee men” in the streets.

In 2006, Boston’s Menino cited the Broken Windows theory in the announcement of misdemeanor citations booklets given to community police officers.

“For those of us familiar with the Broken Windows theory and reality, we know that these kinds of community disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow,” Menino said at the time.

The Boston Globe reported last fall, however, that the Boston police currently do not employ Broken Windows police tactics, choosing instead to focus on community policing and information gathering about the city’s serious offenders.

That’s too bad because eliminating, or even reducing, low-level misdemeanor enforcement has significant implications — both for violent crime rates and for the quality of urban life.

Misdemeanor enforcement can interrupt criminal behavior before it ripens into a felony. Arresting someone for trespassing in the stairwell of a public housing project may avert a sexual assault in that same stairwell later that night. Pouring out the whiskey bottle of someone drinking in public can prevent a stabbing a few hours later. Nabbing a gang member for graffiti may foreclose a shooting. Picking up low-level offenders on misdemeanor charges, and having them serve brief stays in jail or just the station house, can often prevent them from committing felonies later.

It turns out that if you want to decrease incarceration without increasing crime, the way to do it is through more law enforcement, not less, but targeted at low-level offenders.

Of course, not all quality of life violators are felons-in-waiting.

Yet such activity, if allowed to fester, reinforces the perception that social control in the affected area has broken down, leading to more serious law-breaking.

No one understands Broken Windows theory more intuitively than the law-abiding residents of poor communities, who invariably beseech their local police commanders to crack down on public order offenses.

Residents of high-crime neighborhoods complain to the police most frequently about the public disorder in their neighborhoods, rather than about violent felonies. They rightly want the same of quality of life that residents of more affluent neighborhoods take for granted.

A recent Boston study challenges the claim that urban disorder leads to more disorder and more violations of public norms. The main driver of escalating lawlessness, according to criminologists Robert Sampson and Dan O’Brien, is private conflict, such as domestic violence and landlord-tenant disputes, which can lead even to gun violence when they spill into the public realm. Sampson and O’Brien’s study is an important contribution to our understanding of public space, but it is hardly the last word. Experimental research has confirmed the corrosive effect of public disorder on public as well as on private behavior. The perception of living in a neighborhood where social control has broken down leads to elevated stress and a lack of trust, as Sampson and O’Brien themselves note, which can in turn fuel public violence. The police are ill-equipped to resolve private tensions. They can, however, deter public lawlessness through enforcing laws against public incivility.

And enforcing such laws is in fact a moral imperative, because that is what the public, especially in high-crime neighborhoods, wants. In New York City, the only group of voters in a 2015 Quinnipiac poll who didn’t support broken-windows policing was the 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Many young people have no experience of New York’s bad old days and are ignorant about what it takes to maintain the public safety that they assume is their birthright. The closer one is to crime and disorder, the greater one’s support for proactive enforcement.

Slightly more black than white voters said they want the police to “actively issue summonses or make arrests” in their neighborhood for quality-of-life offenses: 61 percent of black voters wanted such summons and arrests, with 33 percent opposed, versus 59 percent of white voters in support, with 37 percent opposed.

According to critics, however, public order policing is a racist assault on poor minority neighborhoods that criminalizes innocuous behavior. But if the majority of arrests for public-order offenses occur in minority neighborhoods, that is because the majority of such offenses occur there as well. The solution to racial disparities in the criminal-justice system is not to target policing. It is to bring the black crime rate down, something that depends first and foremost on revalorizing the two-parent family. Until that happens, however, downgrading the police response to public disorder does a disservice to the residents who have to live with its consequences.

Heather Mac Donald

Heather Mac Donald

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of the forthcoming “The War on Cops.” Read her past columns here.