Is “Broken Windows” Broken?

NYC police commissioner Bill Bratton and criminologist George Kelling, two of the earliest advocates of the “broken windows” theory, have published a lengthy piece defending it against fresh critics outraged by Eric Garner’s death:

Our experience suggests that, whatever the critics might say, the majority of New Yorkers, 9722024610_f768258614_kincluding minorities, approve of such police order-maintenance activities. After all, most of these activities come in response to residents’ demands, which are made to patrolling officers directly, to precinct operators by telephone, to precinct commanders at community meetings, and via the 311 and 911 call centers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, citizens almost invariably are more concerned about disorderly behavior than about major crimes, which they experience far less frequently. We have attended countless meetings with citizen groups in high-crime areas, and, almost without exception, disorderly behavior and conditions are the central concerns. …

[E]ven in this highly charged context [of Garner’s death], support for Broken Windows [in an August 2014 poll] remained high. African-Americans supported it by 56 to 37 percent, whites by 61 to 33 percent, and Hispanics by the largest margin of all—64 to 34 percent.

Emily Badger finds that Bratton and Kelling “make some fair points”:

Randomized experiments have supported the argument that “broken windows” can work. And crime has notably declined in New York since the philosophy was first embraced there. But in making this case, Bratton and Kelling overstate the role that “broken windows” has played in making New York a safer place — or, at least, they understate the very likely possibility that many factors far beyond the control of law enforcement have contributed to making it so. This is the weakest part of their argument.

She points to many of those other factors:

The Marshall Project recently rounded up 10 of the most popular theories for why urban crime has declined. So many exist — from the rise of legal abortion to the decline of lead-based fuel and paint — precisely because the phenomenon has proved so difficult to explain. Can we really dismiss, for instance, the fact that anti-theft technology in vehicles has grown much more sophisticated? Or the fact that the crack epidemic finally waned? Or that our increasingly cashless economy makes people harder targets for crime? We recently wrote about a Chicago summer-jobs program that appears to have cut down on violent arrests by at-risk teens.

Drum backs up Badger’s basic point with data:

blog_violent_crime_six_large_cities_3It’s true that crime in New York is down more than it is nationally, but that’s just because crime went up more in big cities vs. small cities during the crime wave of the 60s through the 80s, and it then went down more during the crime decline of the 90s and aughts. Kelling and Bratton can dismiss this as ivory tower nonsense, but they should know better. The statistics are plain enough, after all.

Take a look at the [two charts]. The top one shows crime declines in six of America’s biggest cities. As you can see, New York did well, but it did no better than Chicago or Dallas or Los Angeles, none of which implemented broken windows during the 90s.

The bottom chart is a summary of the crime decline in big cities vs. small cities. Again, the trend is clear: crime went up more during the 80s in big cities, but then declined more during blog_crime_big_small_cities_1985_2010the 90s and aughts. The fact that New York beat the national average is a matter of its size, not broken windows.

Now, none of this is evidence that broken windows doesn’t work. The evidence is foggy either way, and we simply don’t know. My own personal view is that it’s probably a net positive, but a fairly modest one.

Christina Sternbenz adds:

When University of Chicago professors Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig revisited broken windows [in 2006 – pdf], they reported criminologists knew very little about the theory’s effectiveness. Their paper found no evidence outside of Kelling’s work to support the notion that cracking down on minor offenses leads to a decrease in more serious crime.

Much of the new research claiming to debunk broken windows has also found that targeting minor crimes harms poor people and minorities. For example, a later paper, again by Harcourt and Ludwig, found that the policy, albeit indirectly, led to a disproportionate number of drug arrests for blacks, the New Republic reported.

Charles F. Coleman Jr. chimes in:

As a former prosecutor, I found the most common reasons people committed crimes to be connected to their own finances and/or rooted in the economic constraints of their surrounding environment. The threat of a summons for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is hardly a deterrent for larger crimes when those crimes might help make ends meet for unemployed or underemployed people. This is the problem with broken-windows policing: The theory fails because it attributes the cause of crime to the “tolerance” and escalation of lesser crimes rather than acknowledging that crime rates are higher in poorer communities primarily because people do not like being poor.

But Matthew Hennessey defends Bratton and Kelling from such critics:

Broken Windows is a key part of the difference between a proactive police force and a reactive one. It’s the difference between cops that look for ways to stop criminals from victimizing neighborhoods and ones that sit in patrol cars drinking coffee and waiting for a 911 call to come in. That commitment to dynamic policing permeated the department, from the cop on the beat to the commissioner. Now, thanks to a year of official slander, public protests, and outright lies, the culture of results and accountability that made the NYPD the finest police force in the world could be at risk.

Another defender of Broken Windows may surprise you:

“Because of the broken-windows approach, we are the safest we’ve ever been. I lived through the 1980s in this city and the early ’90s, and I don’t ever want to go back there,” de Blasio said. And: “If I said, ‘Do you want responsive policing?’ ‘Do you want the police to come when you call?’ ‘Do you want small problems addressed, or do you only want big problems addressed?’ I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would say, ‘Yes, we want the police to come when we call.’ ‘Yes, we want order kept.’ ‘Yes, we want small things addressed and big things addressed.’ ”

Recent Dish scrutinizing Broken Windows here.

(Photo by Nick Harris)