THE BLOG
01/26/2015 05:53 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2015

A Response to Bratton and Kelling

The failure of local prosecutors to indict the police officers responsible for killing Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York sparked national protests about law enforcement and criminal justice. When one examines policing to determine how we got to this place of anger and distrust, one criminal justice culprit is Commissioner William Bratton of the New York Police Department's signature policing tactic -- Broken Windows policing, an approach derived from a magazine article written by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson in 1982. Given the tremendous, mostly positive publicity it has engendered, it is surprising to many that this heralded theory of policing is a short essay. The article's one theme is that untended minor criminal behavior leads inexorably to serious street crime. One broken window left unaddressed will soon yield a building filled with broken windows. As the authors famously wrote, "[T]he unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window."

In response to the growing criticism of Broken Windows, Bratton and Kelling authored polemics for the City Journal and the Wall Street Journal defending their rigid adherence to order maintenance policing. In those essays, they selectively pick and characterize arguments raised in opposition to Broken Windows, and thereby seek to frame and limit the debate by implying that these are the only objections worth discussing. Instead, their choices reveal a reluctance to address core concerns raised in opposition to Broken Windows.

Their most significant omission is cost -- Bratton and Kelling say nary a word about the incalculable costs associated with Broken Windows. There is, obviously, the cost to the individual who is ticketed or arrested. That person, almost always a young man of color, is marked as a criminal. His name, and if arrested his fingerprints, are entered into criminal databases, many of which are matters of public record. The arrest adversely affects his ability to get a job, obtain various loans and licenses, and pursue higher education, in addition to damaging his sense of self and well-being. And, as young men of color are disenfranchised and disaffected in this way, their families and communities suffer as well.

There is also the cost as measured by police/community relations. Broken Windows policing has led to feelings ranging from alienation and resentment, to hostility and aggression on the part of those who have experienced its impact. This is what so many are protesting against -- the dramatic growth of "quality-of-life," hyper-aggressive policing.

There is as well the enormous taxpayer borne financial costs associated with prosecuting massive numbers of tickets and arrests for minor offenses. Each case requires a judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, court reporter, court officer, and other personnel, and often entails overtime pay for the arresting officer's time to process paperwork. Recent estimates put the annual cost at well over $400 million.

The purported objections to Broken Windows as selected by Bratton and Kelling also merit examination. The authors note that many Broken Windows critics argue that it has a discriminatory impact. Bratton and Kelling claim, however, that New Yorkers of all races approve of police order maintenance activities. They are undoubtedly correct that nobody is in favor of social disorder and chaos. The catch, however, is the way they define the underlying behavior to be policed. Their essays are replete with references to things like public drinking and drug use, street harassment, drug dealing and fights. They then proclaim that polls reflect public support from all races for police issuing summonses or making arrests for "quality-of-life offenses."

However, the polls beg the question of what is meant by "quality-of-life offenses?" In effect, Bratton and Kelling have created a straw man - if you oppose Broken Windows policing you must be in favor of public fighting, drinking and drug use, harassment, drug dealers, and anarchy.

But in fact, quality-of-life arrests by and large bear little resemblance to matters of social disorder. Rather, they include conduct such as riding a bike on the sidewalk, being in the park minutes after dusk, and drinking a beer on one's own stoop. Do Bratton and Kelling believe that most New Yorkers support summonses and arrests for these actions?

Further, Broken Windows arrests are not in the main about drug dealers or bullies terrorizing the neighborhood. One study found that the two primary groups ensnared in Broken Windows policing are people with myriad issues like homelessness and mental illness, and young men of color with absolutely no prior arrests. Yet Bratton and Kelling opine that a summons for a quality-of-life misdemeanor is "an intervention that has likely kept [them] from more serious criminal behavior."

Many are familiar with the reality that the United States has 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prisoners. America also leads the planet in arrests. No other civilized country arrests as many people, and for such minor offenses, as we do in the United States, and New York City, courtesy of Broken Windows, leads the way. Contrary to the authors' assertion, few critics of Broken Windows argue that it results in over-incarceration. Rather, it results in over-criminalization, principally of people of color.

Bratton and Kelling write that people who live in neighborhoods plagued by crime want aggressive order maintenance policing. Once again, it is how the question is phrased that matters. Do people living in high-crime areas want the city to do something about it? Of course. Is policing part of it? For sure. But has anyone ever asked for the police to stop and arrest her son for riding his bike on the sidewalk, her brother for walking out of the park just after dusk, or her husband for drinking a beer on his front stoop on a hot summer night?

The authors cling to the notion that Broken Windows policing is solely responsible for the drop in the crime rate. For years, New Yorkers annually heard then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly make the same argument in the face of growing criticism over stop-and-frisk. Now, crime continues to decrease even as the numbers of reported stops-and-frisks have plummeted. Notably, the much reported dramatic drop in the number of arrests and tickets issued during the recent NYPD slowdown did not correspond with an uptick in reported crime.

At its core, the objections to Broken Windows are about race. It is almost exclusively people of color who are arrested or ticketed for quality-of-life offenses. Consider the example of riding a bike on the sidewalk in violation of the New York Administrative Code. In the years 2008-11, police officers issued an average of eight bicycle on sidewalk summonses per year in the predominantly white, affluent neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. In that same period, they issued an average of 1,004 such summonses in the predominantly Black and Latino, poor neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn. No policing tactic should permit such stark racial disparities to continue.

New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Police Commissioner promise changes in the wake of the national protests spawned by Grand Jury inaction in Missouri and New York. The NYPD is now experimenting with body-worn cameras and has vowed to retrain its 34,000 officers. Both efforts are laudable but of limited utility if police officers are still dispatched with the mandate to aggressively police certain neighborhoods.

De Blasio was elected on a platform of progressive reform. His administration has implemented new approaches in areas like education, housing, and immigration. Yet NYC law enforcement is based on a magazine article from 33 years ago. It is time for a 21st century approach to policing.