With crime already falling,"Broken Windows Policing" was rolled out with great fanfare and a new guise of academic security-think.
But, but, stop-and-frisk or “Broken Windows policing" reduced crime in New York City, say the talking-heads. Did it? In fact, stop and frisk was a massive unconstitutional misdirection of police resources. By the end of the 1990s, crime fell everywhere for reasons wholly unrelated to, and in some cases, in spite of Giuliani's and Bloomberg's authoritarian policing.
(This post draws entirely from the work of badass scholar Loic Waquant)
1. What was “Broken Windows” policing?
After 1993, anyone caught panhandling or loitering in the city or on a subway, playing a stereo too loud, writing graffiti, urinating outside, hopping a turnstile or violating a mere municipal ordinance was arrested and taken to jail. No more “desk tickets” which would require you to appear later. Inaugurated under Police Chief William Bratton, his Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple described it thus: ‘“Broken Windows’ was merely an extension of what we used to call the ‘Breaking Balls’ theory.” That is, the notion that by suppressing minor crimes, like breaking windows, you prevent major ones. But as Maple later came around to tell it, “Rapists and killers don’t head for another town when they see graffiti is disappearing from the subway. The average squeegee man doesn’t start accepting contract murders whenever he detects a growing tolerance for squeegeeing. Panhandling doesn’t turn a neighborhood into Murder Central.” To date, Broken Windows as a means of reducing crime has no serious empirical study to back it up. Under Giuliani, (and later Bloomberg), “the city police became a wildly hyperactive machine for mass arrests out of all proportion with public need,” writes Loic Waquant. Yet even as misdemeanor arrests surged, the felony indictment and conviction rate dropped steadily after 1992, suggesting that these arrests were based on weak or false evidence that could not be sustained in court.
(NYPD Chief William Bratton (Michael Graae/ Getty Images))
2. Stop and Frisk, as a component of Broken Windows, was not rolled out en masse: it was highly targeted against people who were black or brown living in specific areas and who, in the vast majority, had not committed any crime.
This fact alone makes it clear that this was not a policy of zero tolerance but rather one of selective intolerance for those committing certain crimes, – arrests that score high with mostly white, bourgeois constituents because they are seen as a public nuisance – and the policy targeted specific areas, low income communities where the police may find people who already had outstanding warrants. The generic Stop and Frisk involves an armed man or woman commanding you to spread your legs, assume a submissive position and submit to being groped in front of your neighbors. According to a federal district court judge in New York and to statistical experts who combed through millions of police records, over 80 percent of police stops were of Black and Hispanic people. Yet they accounted for just half the city’s population. Is that because black and brown men disproportionately commit crimes? “This might be a valid comparison if the people stopped were criminals,” wrote Judge Shira A. Scheindlin in a 2008 ruling that found the policy was applied in an unconstitutional manner. “To the contrary, nearly 90 percent of the people stopped are released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest.” She also found that these groups “were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband.” Stop and Frisk massively misdirected police energy and resources into seizing people who had not committed any crime. By that account alone, it was grossly ineffective.
3. Crime in NYC began to fall significantly before Mayor Giuliani took office and prior to the implementation of Broken Windows policing.
Rudolph Giuliani took office in 1994. During the last two years of his predecessor’s term in office, under Mayor David Dinkins, prior to Giuliani’s election, the homicide rate fell by 4 percent and then by 7 percent. After a surge between 1985 and 1990 due mainly to crack cocaine, gun-related murders fell. Aggravated assault began to fall in 1988, burglary in 1980, vehicle theft in 1990. Property crimes declined for 14 years, from 1988 to 2002. Imagining a graph, none of these trend-lines move based on the implementation of Broken Windows. Actually, Broken Windows had already failed once before. From 1984-1987, Mayor David Dinkins implemented “Operation Pressure Point.” During this zero tolerance campaign there was a sharp increase in violent crime also related to a booming drug trade. Once the drug trade stabilized and subsided, crime fell. In other words, Broken Windows tried and failed, then, with crime already falling, it was rolled out with great fanfare and a new guise of academic security-think.
In fact, as Mr. Waquant shows, during the 1990s, crime fell everywhere including in places that did not implement Broken Windows policing. This includes cities such as Boston, San Francisco and San Diego, which largely maintained “community policing” and, in San Francisco, experimented with juvenile diversion programs. In that city, from 1995-1999 violent crime reduced by 33 percent (compared to just 26 percent in NYC) and jail admissions halved.
4. Five other factors that explain the drop in crime.
Mr. Waquant, cited above, lists five factors, (see his work for more detail), but briefly: (1) Though uneven and shallow in key respects, unprecedented economic growth during the 1990s provided jobs, encouraged youth to seek secondary schooling and took many young people off the streets. (2) Stabilization and reduction in the crack cocaine economy: By the end of the 1990s, new dealers ceased to rapidly enter the market and kill each other over territory, the system of sellers stabilized and drug-related homicides plummeted. Additionally, the taste for crack cocaine ceded to other drugs, including marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines which, at that time, were more frequently sold among acquaintances instead of on street corners. (3) The number of young people shrunk significantly and this is the group most likely to commit crime. Here, one cannot discount the tens of thousands who would have been ensnared in the criminal justice system but who died from drug overdoses, the AIDS pandemic among heroin users, gang wars or were deported. (4) The “generational learning effect”: a cohort born after 1975-1980 drew away from the hard drugs and violent lifestyle associated with uncontrolled addiction, imprisonment for life and violent death. Witness the “peace treaties” signed among various gangs in L.A., Chicago, Detroit and Boston in the early 1990s. And also the many community Black and Latinx grass roots organizations that arose with a focus on saving their children. (5) Crime in the 1990s was abnormally high by historical standards: This meant that it was likely to return to its median levels. After the surge in the 80s and 90s, the homicide rate, for example, came back down to the national average where it had been a generation before. All of these factors contributed to a drop in crime.
(Punishing the Poor, by Loic Waquant (Duke Univ. Press 2009))
5. Broken Windows was part of a national trend among politicians who sought to “morally correct” welfare recipients and law breakers.
Moralizing about the need to eliminate a so-called culture of “welfare dependency,” politicians gutted benefits and hinged the receipt of federal aid on the acceptance of low-wage, precarious labor, mostly for women of color. Meanwhile, writes Mr. Waquant, “a veritable Marshall Plan” was provided for imprisonment, largely aimed at men of color. Washington redirected funding so that money for incarceration doubled the sums allocated to either Aid For Dependent Children (AFDC) and Food Stamps ($54 billion compared to $20 billion and $27 billion, respectively). In the 1990s alone, Washington cut funding for public housing by $17 billion and boosted corrections by $19 billion, an increase of 171 percent, “effectively making prisons the main housing program for the poor.” Consider the social profile of who is in jail: by the mid 1990s, less than half of jail inmates held a full time job at the time of arraignment, two-thirds came from households with an annual income less than half the “poverty line,” 60 percent did not grow up with both parents, 14 percent grew up in foster homes, 13 percent had no post-secondary schooling, and every other inmate had a family member in jail. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, in 2011 roughly half had a psychiatric disorder.
The plaint that Stop and Frisk reduced crime is patently false. Those still defending Stop and Frisk envision a tax free, laissez-faire world for those at the top of society and an authoritarian prison regime for those at the bottom who do not dutifully accept low-wage labor, insecure housing, and regular incarceration as a way of life.