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Breaking Broken Windows

Broken Windows theory posited an argument that had some intuitive appeal: taking care of the small things prevents bigger things.

The ideological debate is over.

It happened during the 1990s. A starkly conservative idea became mainstream government status quo. It wasn’t when welfare was “reformed” or when the financial industry was deregulated. It happened when the police were given the keys to New York and other cities across the US – and they haven’t looked back since.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, New York City symbolized the American city that couldn’t control crime. The supposed failures of a liberalism that prioritized social spending – from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – had allowed criminals to control the streets, went the thinking. A slew of conservative voices, which eventually found their way into city hall with the election of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, called for the police to take on crime in much more aggressive and proactive ways. The racist war on drugs was a part of the rallying cry, but the long term transformation of US policing towards targeting “disorder,” like homelessness and street performers, permanently shaped how poor communities of color came to be viewed their government.

Every story needs a savior. In this story the breakdown of “order” required a leader who would dispatch his troops to reclaim the streets from the likes of the squeegee men. New York, on its international perch, brought in Bill Bratton, a no-nonsense former Boston cop who wanted to see police stop crime from ever happening. Ideas like “pro-active policing” and “zero-tolerance” became synonymous with Bratton’s NYPD as a numbers-obsessed police department fed off of public frustration with crime. Stories need villains, too. The poor became the targets of it all.

Broken Windows theory, born in a magazine article, posited an argument that had some intuitive appeal: taking care of the small things prevents bigger things. Declines in major crimes made many into believers as a theory written by two conservative thinkers, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, and carried out by Giuliani and Bratton, was credited with saving the city from itself.

This new role for police, tasked with “cleaning up” New York, meant that cops would chase drug users, not only drug dealers; fare beaters and artists, not just murderers. This new theory was hardly questioned as being effective – let alone moral – even as social research never corroborated its claims. The method to the madness seemed justified so as long as crime stats plunged. Politicians embraced pro-active policing. You want government efficiency? We could now get out in front of crime like we had failed to do with poverty. In fact, any suggestion that crime was a symptom of poverty, as many liberals saw it, was now a moot point.

Conservatives had won out. Not only had liberals lost the argument that poverty was the underlying condition affecting crime, voices from the right-wing Manhattan Institute were suggesting, to open ears, that policing could sweep up all of those things – homelessness, begging and various forms of street culture deemed “nuisances” (i.e. performing on the street for money). Not only were the poor communities of color worthy of being targeted, Broken Windows sold the idea that the poor were responsible for the murders and serious crimes. The social “disorder” created by begging or graffiti, Kelling and Wilson theorized, greenlighted the killings and robberies.

These ideas legitimized growing police powers. But these powers also sought a national framework. Bill Clinton’s 1994 omnibus crime bill, the country’s largest ever criminal justice legislation, funded over 100,000 new police officers, built new prisons and embraced an idea of “community policing.” As the US moved towards mass incarceration, New York’s police department grew in size and scope as the headcount went up by the thousands and misdemeanor arrests quadrupled. Crime, which had begun to decline before Broken Windows (as well as in other cities that policed in vastly different ways), became a political calculation that seemingly outweighed every other issue in the city.

The police were more powerful, politically, and more intrusive, in practice, than ever before. Bratton introduced the COMPSTAT program to manage the expanding department. Streets, now given a “pro-active” mandate to arrest and ticket people for low-level offenses, were steered by their superiors through an unspoken quota system. After 9/11, police power stretched even further, with departments becoming an appendage to the war on terror. The NYPD was top dog, collaborating directly with federal law enforcement agencies in tracking and surveilling people across state borders, and even opening an office in Israel.

Their bread and butter remained low-level enforcement. By arresting the Black kid jumping the turnstile or the homeless man sleeping on the train, the police were out reclaim the streets from that persistent lot: people.

No more coddling of so-called criminals by liberals. In fact, liberals from Clinton to Bill de Blasio sought to prove that they could be as tough on crime as conservatives. They gave the police ample resources. They fed the beast. No longer was it considered a conservative idea to throw cops at every problem – it was just good politics. Robust efforts to tackle poverty or homelessness were now failed liberal thinking. Poverty does not cause crime, as liberalism once suggested. The cause of crime, according to Bratton, “is human behavior, not social, economic, demographic, or ethnographic factors.” And today’s police, unshackled from ideological debates, “can control behavior to such a degree that we can change behavior.”

Cops were now to deal with social degradation. Poverty, expressed through a fare evaded or a rattling cup of change, came to be seen as the crime itself. The results were predictable as Blacks and Latinos become the overwhelming targets.

In order to break that Broken Windows stranglehold on our communities, we need to break the ideas that catapulted it into the gears of public policy. The notion that government, in the form of a gun and a badge, is capable of changing human behavior, is a black hole of an idea. Police sucking in every resource and data point – from city budgets to cutting edge surveillance technologies – hold virtually every card. Thus they are, for all intents and purposes, reform-proof. No legislation will reign in the ideas that have empowered them. That, instead, requires repudiating the role of police as one that has been oversold. And some of the best salespeople are today’s liberals – as complicit as anyone in a growing police state. It requires calling out all of these salespeople and sellouts. It requires firmly calling for less and less police and more community resources.

More than anything it requires anger. Lots of anger. Enough anger to break the windows that try to keep many of our brothers and sisters on the outside looking in.

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