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Monday, November 24, 2014

Why Broken Windows Theory was corrupted


I haven't commented on the Broken Windows Theory, despite seeing a marked decline in the quality of Law enforcement in recent years attributed at least in part to the crazy implementation of it. But I remedied that neglect recently when I realized what I was hearing didn't make sense and started digging. I first heard of the "Broken Windows Theory in the context of Rudy Giuliani's crackdown on crime a few years back. The way it was presented, if they catch criminals doing minor crimes they can stop major crimes.

Pre-Emptive Law Enforcement

The result of this theory was that a lot of "criminals" were taken off the street in what seemed pre-emptive enforcement. Like the "Pre-crime" methods of that Awful movie "Minority Report" with Tom Cruise. Of course "pre-crime" violates fundamental principles of justice including 4th and 5th amendment protections. And Giuliani's measures were oppressive in far greater proportion to any benefit from them. Indeed "Broken Windows" philosophy and the related "zero tolerance" attitude has led to jails being filled up with people convicted of minor crimes, while major crimes continue to go unpunished. Major crimes are usually committed in offices of major banks or companies in this country. Despite abundant evidence that Zero Tolerance doesn't work at either the School level or in law enforcement, it is popular among disciplinary authorities.

Zero Tolerance

I just shared a report that shows how and why Zero Tolerance in Schools is a dysfunctional policy. [] It appears that what makes the broken windows concept a failure is that it too is based on some of the same false assumptions and worse policies as the "Zero Tolerance" policy is based on. I first started writing about that when I remembered my own awful experience with bullying and school dysfunction as a kid that I alluded to back in August: ["Bullying and what to do about it"]. It appears that the schools are even less clueless about dealing with these subjects than they were when I was a kid. And they were pretty clueless then!

But what contributes to the injustice in the Judicial system are two theories entertwined both of which are intensely destructive. If Zero Tolerance is dysfunctional in Schools. The "School to prison pipeline" also includes a "Zero Tolerance" minor crimes to long prison sentences also based on the Zero Tolerance society. This time expressed in "Three Strikes you're out" sentencing guidelines.

What's wrong with "Broken Windows Theory"?

The theories claim t obe based on an article written in the Atlantic in 1983, The author made two observations:

" First, outside observers should not assume that they know how much of the anxiety now endemic in many big-city neighborhoods stems from a fear of "real" crime and how much from a sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters. The people of Newark, to judge from their behavior and their remarks to interviewers, apparently assign a high value to public order, and feel relieved and reassured when the police help them maintain that order."

Enforceing a Feeling of Safety

In other words, foot patrols and community policing "helped" best when it made the "regulars" feel safer, from "strangers" as well as from real criminals.

"Second, at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)" [Atlantic Article page 2]

Misrepresenting the Theory

From reading this article, authorities and Folks like William Bratton decided to interpret the "Broken Windows theory" as a theory of protecting communities by arresting people for petty crimes.

"Bratton and others expanded the meaning of this metaphorical window to include the common, victimless but troublesome crimes that occur every day in urban areas. Order begets accountability, the theory goes; disorder begets crime. So, enforcing the smallest laws could prevent the large ones from being broken. As head of the Transit Police, Bratton had zero tolerance for graffiti and turnstile-jumping. As head of the NYPD, he cracked down on so-called “squeegee men.” (Kelling, one of the authors of the original Atlantic article, had also been earlier hired by New York City as a consultant.) Violent crime dropped 51 percent in New York City in the 1990s, and homicide dropped 72 percent. These impressive results gave both the broken windows theory and the policies it inspired the sheen of unassailability." []

But is this what Wilson and Kelling were talking about?

James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling's article?

The Atlantic article broken Glass Theory was not directly about arresting squeegie men and vagrants, but was about the concept of order and whether communities feel safe or not. When people have a sense of ownership they fix their windows, mow their lawns and take care of their property, because they have a stake in that neighborhood. So the people talking about community policing and empowering citizens took their cues from this article that the way to reduce crime is to give people ownership of their property. Crudely that means moving them to houses with mortgages. But it also could have meant giving people the right to have title to their homes even when someone else owns the building. They do that in Argentina. Here it's confined to Condos. But anyone who studies urban areas knows that owned and occupied buildings are better taken care of than abandoned or rented buildings.

Testing the Theory

"Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California." [Atl page 2]

Sure enough the car in the Bronx:

"was attacked by 'vandals' within ten minutes of its "abandonment." The first to arrive were a family—father, mother, and young son—who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began—windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult "vandals" were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites." [Atlantic Article page 2]

Disorderly Conditions invite Crime

Yes, plant an abandoned car in a neglected and blighted neighborhood was seen as fair game. But what happened in Palo Alto was interesting:

"The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the "vandals" appeared to be primarily respectable whites. Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx—its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of "no one caring"—vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that "no one cares." [Atlantic Article page 2]

People Care About Neighborhoods that are cared for

So far so good. I don't think anyone would disagree that the sociology of crime requires that people care about their neighborhoods and that care be put into them. When a city is disinvested in, such as happening in Detroit, the effects become much the same. It's like breaking a window in an abandoned car. Only it's the whole city. If nobody cares, everyone acts as a pirate. The rules are turned off. Something similar would happen if our country fell apart in say a "Zombie Apocalypse." The default for human society is tribal behavior with families looking out for themselves.

Tended Versus Untended Behavior

The Atlantic article goes on to say:

"We suggest that "untended" behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers."[Atlantic Article]

You'd think they'd prioritize Fixing Broken Windows?

So the Broken Window theory started out as a perfectly valid observation that one would think would lead to community investment, empowering people to stake out empty homes and move in and homestead them.

The article goes on to explain how neighborhoods go downhill:

"At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. "Don't get involved." For some residents, this growing atomization will matter little, because the neighborhood is not their "home" but "the place where they live." Their interests are elsewhere; they are cosmopolitans. But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments rather than worldly involvement; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet." [Atlantic Article]

Why didn't it turn out that way?

The article went on to describe the history of Urban Decay:

"The process we call urban decay has occurred for centuries in every city. But what is happening today is different in at least two important respects. First, in the period before, say, World War II, city dwellers- because of money costs, transportation difficulties, familial and church connections—could rarely move away from neighborhood problems. When movement did occur, it tended to be along public-transit routes. Now mobility has become exceptionally easy for all but the poorest or those who are blocked by racial prejudice. Earlier crime waves had a kind of built-in self-correcting mechanism: the determination of a neighborhood or community to reassert control over its turf. Areas in Chicago, New York, and Boston would experience crime and gang wars, and then normalcy would return, as the families for whom no alternative residences were possible reclaimed their authority over the streets." [Atlantic Article]
"Second, the police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested "on suspicion" or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. "Rights" were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer."

Then he makes this point:

"This pattern of policing was not an aberration or the result of occasional excess. From the earliest days of the nation, the police function was seen primarily as that of a night watchman: to maintain order against the chief threats to order—fire, wild animals, and disreputable behavior. Solving crimes was viewed not as a police responsibility but as a private one. In the March, 1969, Atlantic, one of us (Wilson) wrote a brief account of how the police role had slowly changed from maintaining order to fighting crimes. The change began with the creation of private detectives (often ex-criminals), who worked on a contingency-fee basis for individuals who had suffered losses. In time, the detectives were absorbed in municipal agencies and paid a regular salary simultaneously, the responsibility for prosecuting thieves was shifted from the aggrieved private citizen to the professional prosecutor. This process was not complete in most places until the twentieth century." [Atlantic Article]

He goes on to say that as important as the role of solving crimes is in modern policing, the primary role of police traditionally has been in order maintenance:

"A great deal was accomplished during this transition, as both police chiefs and outside experts emphasized the crime fighting function in their plans, in the allocation of resources, and in deployment of personnel. The police may well have become better crime-fighters as a result. And doubtless they remained aware of their responsibility for order. But the link between order-maintenance and crime-prevention, so obvious to earlier generations, was forgotten." [Atlantic Article]

All true and he goes on:

"That link is similar to the process whereby one broken window becomes many. The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager, or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization—namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window. Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions. If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place." [Atlantic Article]

The Atlantic Article was not advocating arresting vagrants and squeegie men

So we can see how this article spawned both the community policing model and more nasty policies. If the theory is that the way to reduce crime is to remove the panhandlers, lock up the vandals and thus make the neighborhood feel safer from crime -- then that becomes the focus of law enforcement. But the fact is that the Atlantic argument was not endorsing the policies that cite it. On the contrary the author noted:

"Some police administrators concede that this process occurs, but argue that motorized-patrol officers can deal with it as effectively as foot patrol officers. We are not so sure. In theory, an officer in a squad car can observe as much as an officer on foot; in theory, the former can talk to as many people as the latter. But the reality of police-citizen encounters is powerfully altered by the automobile. An officer on foot cannot separate himself from the street people; if he is approached, only his uniform and his personality can help him manage whatever is about to happen. And he can never be certain what that will be—a request for directions, a plea for help, an angry denunciation, a teasing remark, a confused babble, a threatening gesture." [Atlantic Article]

But a police officer with a cruiser can come in shoot unarmed teenagers or the local vagrants. And can't tell the difference between "neighbors" and "strangers." Those who practice "Broken Window" policing ignore the core of what Broken Window theory was about. The author could have been describing events in Ferguson or any town where people feel the police as oppressive:

"In a car, an officer is more likely to deal with street people by rolling down the window and looking at them. The door and the window exclude the approaching citizen; they are a barrier. Some officers take advantage of this barrier, perhaps unconsciously, by acting differently if in the car than they would on foot. We have seen this countless times. The police car pulls up to a corner where teenagers are gathered. The window is rolled down. The officer stares at the youths. They stare back. The officer says to one, "C'mere." He saunters over, conveying to his friends by his elaborately casual style the idea that he is not intimidated by authority. What's your name?" "Chuck." "Chuck who?" "Chuck Jones." "What'ya doing, Chuck?" "Nothin'." "Got a P.O. [parole officer]?" "Nah." "Sure?" "Yeah." "Stay out of trouble, Chuckie." Meanwhile, the other boys laugh and exchange comments among themselves, probably at the officer's expense. The officer stares harder. He cannot be certain what is being said, nor can he join in and, by displaying his own skill at street banter, prove that he cannot be "put down." In the process, the officer has learned almost nothing, and the boys have decided the officer is an alien force who can safely be disregarded, even mocked." [Atlantic Article]

Worse the Officer in a cruiser is an outsider. He is the stranger. Talking to the officer no longer becomes talking to a familiar and trusted figure:

"Our experience is that most citizens like to talk to a police officer. Such exchanges give them a sense of importance, provide them with the basis for gossip, and allow them to explain to the authorities what is worrying them (whereby they gain a modest but significant sense of having "done something" about the problem). You approach a person on foot more easily, and talk to him more readily, than you do a person in a car. Moreover, you can more easily retain some anonymity if you draw an officer aside for a private chat. Suppose you want to pass on a tip about who is stealing handbags, or who offered to sell you a stolen TV. In the inner city, the culprit, in all likelihood, lives nearby. To walk up to a marked patrol car and lean in the window is to convey a visible signal that you are a "fink."

The authors next point is just as important:

"The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself. The police cannot, without committing extraordinary resources, provide a substitute for that informal control. On the other hand, to reinforce those natural forces the police must accommodate them. And therein lies the problem"

The authors then ask an important question:

Should police activity on the street be shaped, in important ways, by the standards of the neighborhood rather than by the rules of the state?

"Over the past two decades, the shift of police from order-maintenance to law enforcement has brought them increasingly under the influence of legal restrictions, provoked by media complaints and enforced by court decisions and departmental orders. As a consequence, the order maintenance functions of the police are now governed by rules developed to control police relations with suspected criminals."

And this leads to the police treating entire neighborhoods as if everyone in that neighborhood was a criminal with the result that instead of a "serve and protect" attitude police come to treat such neighborhoods as occupied territory where everyone is suspect.

"For centuries, the role of the police as watchmen was judged primarily not in terms of its compliance with appropriate procedures but rather in terms of its attaining a desired objective. The objective was order, an inherently ambiguous term but a condition that people in a given community recognized when they saw it. The means were the same as those the community itself would employ, if its members were sufficiently determined, courageous, and authoritative"

But the police cruiser ensconced, occupying policeman is not concerned with order. He's concerned with survival, with procedure, with arresting and prosecuting "perpetrators". They go on to detail their own opinions about what was happening. And I suggest people read the Atlantic article before judging it on the basis of what folks have done with their recommendations. Because their warnings are cogent:

"Above all, we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows"

Rudy Giuliani and other police officials don't seem to have read this report carefully. Or disregarded it. Because the report recommended community policing and other policies aimed at fixing the windows and making people feel at home. Not what these people have done with the term. Which has been conflated with "Zero Tolerance" and "profiling" nonsense -- and essentially doing the opposite of what the Atlantic recommended. In the name of the "Broken Windows Theory the Article "Breaking down the Broken Window Theory" Police commissioners like William J. Bratton stripped the heart out of Broken Window Theory by reductio ad absurdum. Rather than involve officers in establishing order and community policing they decided that the way to reduce crime was to arrest the folks who broke the windows. For example he says:

"We are not targeting communities of color, we are targeting behavior," Bratton said. "And the behavior is things that are prohibited by law, breaking the law." []

But you see, he's not making the community feel safer, fixing broken windows, or restoring what the community would consider order. He's imposing a rule from outside very much like the kind that Wilson and Kelling warned about.

Ferguson is an example of what happens when officers aren't part of community order.

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