At a recent breakfast forum hosted by Crain’s, the twice and current NYPD commissioner, Bill Bratton, touted his record of success fighting “disorder” in New York City and beyond to an audience of corporate representatives.
The city’s murder rate was 2,245 when he first became commissioner in 1994, he said; this year, it may be around 300. Bratton says the reduction is due in significant part to his theory of broken windows policing, which has compelled police to go after low-level crimes – or symptoms of social disorder – with the hope of deterring more serious ones.
It doesn’t matter that a whole gamut of experts have surmised that New York’s drop was part of a nationwide trend that included cities where police took radically different approaches to crime. After 20 years, the folklore of broken windows’ success is so entrenched that giving this spiel must feel as effortless for Bratton as tying his shoes. A recent poll found a majority of New Yorkers approves of broken windows policing, or at least the version of it presented in the media, but an even wider margin believes police brutality is a problem.
“I did not come back to fail,” Bratton declared. “I am back to win.” And all those losers who’ve been brutalized, hassled and inconvenienced by a policing strategy predicated on ever increasing citizen-police contact better stand aside, or else.
“Why does broken windows focus on the dollar-fifty turnstile jump rather than on the hundred-million dollar accounting scam?”
His audience regularly broke into applause, which seemed curious: Surely, a person who works at JP Morgan, or Accenture, or the NYC Police Foundation, must have some aversion to law and order. After all, cataclysmic fraud, giving kickbacks and police brutality are illegal, and thus disorderly, and at the very least these men must know someone who has done those things.
But fortunately for these businessmen, the disorder that the NYPD patrols for is the kind they wouldn’t have much of a reason to engage in, save for a night when the usual terrorizing of working-class people of color grew stale.
Through the paradigm of broken windows policing (also known as quality of life policing), “We have come to identify certain acts – graffiti spraying, litter, panhandling, turnstile jumping, and prostitution – and not others – police brutality, accounting scams, and tax evasion – as disorderly and connected to broader patterns of serious crime,” writes Bernard Harcourt in Policing Disorder. Harcourt is one of the few academics that has been shouting in the dark for 20 years, but now that broken windows is back in the headlines, his work seems more prescient than ever.
“Why does broken windows focus on the dollar-fifty turnstile jump,” Harcourt writes, “rather than on the hundred-million dollar accounting scam?”
The literal-minded would answer that it’s because of jurisdiction. Police don’t handle massive accounting scams; that’s the job of the Securities and Exchange Commission. But Harcourt’s question is rhetorical and speaks to a deeper issue of perception: Why are habits borne of material deprivation – begging for money, evading a train fare, dancing for tips on the subway, or selling untaxed cigarettes – more criminalized, in our laws and minds, then things that hurt more people and fundamentally undermine the institutions that make up an orderly society?
Broken windows isn’t about making a dangerous neighborhood safer for those who live there so much as it is about using police power to scythe the way forward for the gentrification process.
The answer is clearer when we consider why the broken windows method has received such accolades from the political and commercial elite. In Lockdown America, journalist Christian Parenti chronicles how the crackdown on minor crimes in the 1990s opened up Times Square to millions in investment dollars that eventually transformed it from a seedy “porno Mecca” into a tourist’s paradise.
“The reduction in crime has improved New York’s quality of life, bolstered job growth, and increased investment throughout the city,” said one representative from the New York City Economic Development Corporation in 1998.
Seventeen years later, Bratton is singing the same tune.
“A safe city means business thrives,” he said at the breakfast forum. When that happens, he adulated, “[You] make the city strong with the jobs you create.”
The most revealing moment for Bratton was a short anecdote about a recent time he took his wife to dinner in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in northern Brooklyn.
“The streets [in Williamsburg] were teeming with people,” he said, adding that such a scene would have been unimaginable in the past. He went on to marvel how he had counted nearly two-dozen dog walkers on a different day when he passed through Fort Greene, another neighborhood in Brooklyn that is rapidly gentrifying.
“If you make it safe, they will come, they will build, [and] we need to make those remaining areas of poverty and depression safe, so you will come and build,” he said.
But a closer look at these neighborhoods reveals a much more complicated picture, and many uncomfortable truths. In Williamsburg, which was once comparable to an open-air junkyard, the rate of violent crime fell 71 percent between 1993 and 2010. That’d be great if it meant long-term Williamsburg residents enjoyed a safer environment, but the fall in crime happened alongside a sharp spike in rent prices and a corresponding demographic transformation. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Latinos in Williamsburg – in the North and South Side areas – decreased by a quarter, while the white population increased by 75 percent. Their shares of the neighborhood population basically reversed: Latinos dropped 57 percent to under 38 percent, and whites rose 34 percent to 52 percent. Average income has steadily risen by tens of thousands of dollars over the last two decades.
A similar pattern is found in Fort Greene, home to the arena where the city is trying to bring the Democratic National Convention. The arena, Barclay’s Center, was built as part of a $4.9 billion dollar commercial and residential development project that has been the subject of deep contention among locals. Fort Greene follows the Williamsburg pattern: Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population increased from 14.1 percent to 27.9 percent, while the black share decreased from 57.1 percent to 42.5 percent and Latinos’ from 21.6 percent to 18.4 percent. Rents and average income in the area followed the change.
Why Did Crime Fall?
Overall safety crime fell all throughout New York City, as well as the rest of the country, in the 1990s and 2000s. Nobody is totally sure why. Proponents of broken windows point out that New York’s drop in crime rate was twice the national average, and some point to the change in demographics and crime rate as evidence of a racial pathology for crime.
Franklin Zimring, a professor at University of California, Berkley, and author of The City That Became Safe, explains that the drop in crime was too great to be explained by the population change.
That criminals have to be “exported” has been a “fundamental assumption that we’ve always made about crime and criminals,” he told Scientific American. But given how hard the rate of crime fell in New York City – twice the national rate – Zimring says the changing population can’t account for the breadth of change in crime. He also counters the familiar narrative that gentrification makes neighborhoods safer by driving out poorer people, noting that crime dropped in all of New York City’s boroughs between 1990 and 2010 – even in poorer neighborhoods that were predominantly nonwhite.
That could be for a number of reasons. Leaving out larger social factors, police tactics like the crackdown on public drug markets (which could have forced dealers indoors, reducing turf wars) and the placement of police at corners where violence is known to occur likely deserve some credit for reducing violence. But these strategies are separate from broken windows policing, a much more theoretical idea that says arresting people for, say, vending merchandise without a permit, or tagging a building, will inevitably lead to less murders. And there is scant evidence it has had this effect.
For Bratton to cite changes in gentrified Williamsburg and Fort Greene as justification for a focus on minor crimes means the strategy is about something other than the reduction of crime: It’s about the reduction of the perception of crime. But the perception that really matters is the one harbored by developers, investors and other members of the capitalist class who can “come and build” for future residents who, in broken windows parlance, are “more orderly” – whether or not these residents commit offenses outside the purview of the broken windows conception of “disorder.” And as the record indicates, and as previous investigations have revealed, “orderly” is often a proxy for whiteness.
Thus, broken windows isn’t about making a dangerous neighborhood safer for those who live there so much as it is about using police power to scythe the way forward for the gentrification process. We witness the broken windows-gentrification duality not only in New York, but also in other places across the country, evidencing that one seems to always accompany the other.
The Broken Windows Lobby
Downtown Los Angeles, once dilapidated and almost totally neglected by the city, has been gentrifying rapidly since the late 1990s, when the city passed an adaptive-reuse ordinance that encouraged developers to transform old buildings into lofts and boutique shops.
Developers are consciously following a precedent set by New York. “Right now, Downtown [Los Angeles] is like Brooklyn, but that’s going to change. This is going to be Manhattan,” said one prominent developer to GQ.
Leading the Manhattanization of Downtown is the area’s main business lobby, the Central City Association (CCA), which sees broken windows-style policing as an essential component of development – especially in “cleaning up” Skid Row, a gritty 50-square block area that is home to thousands of homeless people.
“Downtown’s continued revitalization requires consistent enforcement and prevention of low-level crimes that breed both negative perceptions and actual incidence of larger crimes,” reads a CCA manifesto called “Downtown 2020: Roadmap to LA’s Future.” It goes on to declare that the CCA will “lobby for . . . reinforcing the broken windows approach to policing.”
The Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) first full-scale implementation of broken windows policing happened in 2006, when Bill Bratton was serving as its police chief. That year, the CCA, in concert with another business lobby in the downtown area, the Central City East Association, successfully lobbied City Hall to send a 50-officer task force into Skid Row. According to reports, most apprehended under the campaign were taken in on drug charges and minor offenses like sitting on the sidewalk. The vast majority arrested were homeless people, many of whom suffered from drug addiction and mental illness.
While a subsequent lawsuit countered the overt police aggression, broken windows continued to guide the LAPD under Bratton until he left in 2009. The strategy’s ghost lives on under the reign of Bratton’s successor, current LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck.
Crime did indeed drop throughout Los Angeles during Bratton’s tenure, including, by the LAPD’s estimates, a 41 percent drop in homicides. But as SFWeekly noted, the drop coincided with a 20-year nationwide fall in violent crime, which has a myriad of causes, all of them difficult to isolate.
As in Brooklyn, the decade also brought radical demographic changes to Los Angeles. The 2000 Census found blacks and Latinos made up 22.3 percent and 36.7 percent of the Downtown population, respectively, while whites made up 16.2 percent; 10 years later, an analysis of Census data found the number of blacks remained roughly the same while Latinos fell to 25 percent and whites rose to 26 percent. Throughout all of Los Angeles, the black population declined by nearly 50,000 between the two censuses; similarly, the black population fell 100,000 in New York City during the same decade.
Does the change in population and drop in egregious crime offer proof that people of color are more predisposed to violence than whites? The FBI found in 2011 that “white individuals were arrested more often for violent crimes than any other race.” Additionally, it’s only a small number of offenders who commit truly egregious crimes on a consistent basis, so even if whites disproportionately commit more crimes, they’re coming from a small, multi-racial sample size. It therefore makes no sense, from a statistical standpoint, to believe that arresting black and brown people en masse for minor crime is the main reason violent crime went down in Los Angeles – especially because crime fell nationwide over the last 20 years.
The United States’ two largest cities were sharpening stones for the broken windows scythe, and now it is hacking at “disorder” in cities across the country, in ways more diffused than ever.
Future of the Scythe
In 2013, when rapidly gentrifying Oakland recorded the highest rise in rent in the country, Bratton became one of the city’s security advisors in response to the city’s dwindling police force and rise in violent crime. Almost immediately, the city passed an anti-graffiti ordinance – the NYPD commissioner has expressed a “deep, personal hatred” of graffiti – in line with his signature crackdown on markers of poverty and deviance from upper-middle class white cultural norms.
Bratton no longer works at the consulting firm hired by the city, but his fingerprints are all over Oakland’s citywide crime reduction plan.
In Detroit, where rents are rising downtown as a flood of white newcomers pour in, “quality-of-life” policing was introduced following visits and consultations with the city by George Kelling – godfather of broken windows and Bratton’s intellectual mentor. Local black residents have absorbed the brunt of the police campaign. As the detailed Guardian reports, the effect has been making “the city more appealing to successful, and mostly white, middle class professionals” while burdening longtime residents.
But beyond these very explicit examples, the strategy’s more wide-ranging legacy may be less tangible. A recent report called “Future Trends in Policing” published by the Police Executive Research Forum – of which Bratton served twice as president – found that 70 percent of police departments plan to implement “predictive policing” in the future, which the report defines as “taking data from disparate sources, analyzing them, and using them to anticipate, prevent, and respond more effectively to crime” through increasingly complex forecasting algorithms.
During a speech earlier this year in Jerusalem at Israel’s inaugural National Conference on Personal Security, Bratton identified predictive policing as the latest evolution from the early 1990s quality of life policing. The class-based assumptions of “disorder” present when he first became NYPD commissioner will now be embedded in a much more sophisticated infrastructure of stopping crime. But when you disrobe the technology, algorithms and jargon, what remains will be the basic idea that the actions of people in poor neighborhoods should merit the most vigilance by the police. Predictive policing may reduce violence, but it will likely come at added costs to low-income communities. As a new report entitled “Civil Rights, Big Data and Our Algorithmic Future” notes, such systems “may also create an echo chamber effect as crimes in heavily policed areas are more likely to be detected than the same offenses committed elsewhere . . . lead[ing] to statistics that overstate the concentration of crime, which can in turn bias allocations of future resources.”
Broken windows policing is an integral component of 21st century urban reconfiguration, and it’s disingenuous for its most ardent proponent to tout its supposed success without drawing attention to this reality. But it’s understandable why Bratton does not: To acknowledge that the broken window strategy’s record follows a pattern of displacement and resettlement would be to admit it marshals state power for a very unfair model of urban development. It would also mean admitting – contrary to their stated mission – the police do not serve and protect everybody equally.