Breaking Down ‘Broken Windows’

undarkBy Aleszu Bajak | UnDark

In the late 1990s, Cynthia Lum was a beat cop in Baltimore’s eastern district, and her tenure was marked by skyrocketing rates of homicide, rape, robbery, assault, arson and theft. Like many young police officers trying to combat violent crime, Lum assiduously stuck with the tactics she knew best: respond to calls, remember your training, and follow procedure. And at the time, training and procedure were largely predicated on the presumed benefits of targeting minor infractions.

“We were doing a lot of what was called ‘aggressive policing’ and that meant making lots of arrests for misdemeanor crimes and doing a lot of stop and frisk,” Lum recalled. “Broken windows had just come out.”

Introduced in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic magazine, “Broken Windows” was the brainchild of George L. Kelling, a criminologist, and James Q. Wilson, a political scientist. At its heart was the idea that physical and social disorder – a broken window, a littered sidewalk, public drunkenness – are inextricably linked to criminal behavior. By focusing on repairing the windows, cleaning up the streets, and dissuading crude behavior, Kelling and Wilson suggested, police departments can help to forestall more serious crimes from ever taking shape.

The idea, which seemed to make some intuitive sense, had immediate purchase on the popular mind, and it’s little surprise that the “broken windows theory,” as it became known, went on to inform policing strategies from New York City to Los Angeles and everywhere in between. It has also given rise to a whole genre of spinoff and ancillary theories – all of them imbued with the idea that focusing on low-level disorder will have some concomitant impact on broader categories of crime.

But even as Lum and other patrol officers dutifully followed what they believed to be sound policing policy, critics were picking apart broken windows and its offshoots, arguing that for all of their appeal, pat theories present far too simplistic a view of the push-and-pull between crime and police work, and often with little data to back them up. That’s starting to change, and researchers are now developing much more nuanced and statistically rigorous views of which tactics work, when they work (or don’t), and why.

The question now is how quickly such insights will permeate police culture overall, and Lum — now off the streets of Baltimore and working as an associate professor of criminology at George Mason University, where she directs the school’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy — suggests that decades of blind faith in the orthodoxies of broken windows remains a powerful impediment to change.

“The correlation between disorder and crime is very obvious, you can see it all the time,” Lum said. “But whether or not the processes that Kelling argued about — that disorder begets violent crime, that there’s a causal connection between the two — that is something that is much more debated.”

That debate over broken windows reached a crescendo in June, when the New York City Department of Investigation’s Office of the Inspector General released an assessment of the police department’s longstanding emphasis on so-called quality-of-life policing — an outgrowth of broken windows. The analysis examined five years of arrest and crime data in a hunt for some statistical relationship between quality-of-life arrests — those made for such offenses as public urination, disorderly conduct, and drinking alcohol in public — and a reduction in felony crimes. The results were undeniable: “OIG-NYPD’s analysis has found no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime,” the report stated.

The NYPD promptly refuted the OIG’s analysis, calling its methodology “deeply flawed.” Just this week, outgoing NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton — perhaps the best-known and earliest advocate of broken windows —  countered the city’s study by issuing an NYPD-branded analysis supporting the theory.

On Wednesday, the New York Department of Investigation dismissed Bratton’s study as lacking in statistical muscle — and it reiterated the advice it gave the NYPD back in June: “Rely on a more data-driven approach” to determining what works and what doesn’t.

That kind of advice should have come much sooner, experts say. In the 30 years since the Atlantic article first appeared, there have been thousands of studies carried out in U.S. cities analyzing a variety of disorder-focused law enforcement strategies and whether they reduce criminality. But the quality of the studies, along with their results, are very much a mixed bag. Where one study might suggest that clearing out homeless encampments in Los Angeles reduces violent crime, it has proved all too easy to find another analysis of, say, aggressive traffic enforcement in Ohio, that finds no impact on more serious crimes at all.

“That’s part of the problem with ‘broken windows’ literature,” said Dan O’Brien, an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “There’s just so many studies, that people will point to whatever study supports their argument.”

Read the full article here.

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