• Martin Duffy

A Return to Broken Windows Policy

New York City, once praised for its ability to maintain low crime rates with such a high population, has been experiencing vast increases in violent and non-violent crimes. This partly has to do with the reduction of severity of numerous crimes such as petty theft. Under the supervision of District Attorney Alvin Bragg, such crimes will rarely be prosecuted as felonies but rather as mere misdemeanors. This decrease in the charging and sentencing of criminals has led to a drastic uptick in criminal activities in the city. The more progressive takes on policing, whereby police no longer participate in either “broken windows policing” or policing of non-felonious behavior, has led to a society that values progressiveness over general security via policing. The common misconceptions of policing, especially in the wake of misinformation during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, have led to police forces across the country being stripped of money to equip themselves as well as their ability to protect their communities.


The clearest example of this is the deaths of officers Jason Rivera and his partner Wilbert Mora on 21 January 2022. These officers responded to a domestic dispute situation in Harlem and ended up being ambushed and murdered. This, I argue, blatant disregard for the risk undertaken by police officers every day is evident in these lax policies as they often put them in contact with career criminals with violent tendencies who, more often than not, would have been in jail for prior crimes had they been properly prosecuted.


The bail reforms put into place by District Attorney (DA) Bragg, and DA’s before him, have led to an increase in non-prosecuted arrests and thus has increased the number of criminals freely walking in New York. The failures of DA Bragg, and previous DAs before him, as stated by Fox News's criminal correspondent Rebecca Rosenberg have often led to an unjustifiable increase in crime. Recently DA Bragg has spoken up about an increase in gun crime since his coming into office which some critics state is a direct result of his “soft-on-crime” policies. Officer Rivera’s wife in his eulogy attacked DA Bragg’s policies as they fail to protect both the community and the members of the service.


Throughout 2020, murders in the United States spiked “more than 27 percentage - the largest percentage increase in at least six decades. Last year, murders went up again”. This consistent increase of murders is theorised by political correspondent German Lopez to be in part due to the stigma held by individuals against police officers. With many individuals throughout their communities out to find any wrongdoing on the part of a police officer, many officers have taken less proactive actions in order to avoid being ostracised for anything they may have to do to maintain order, namely any force which must be used to subdue an individual but may be seen by others as excessive. The amount of force and the tactics used by these officers, too, has been attacked with states such as New York attempting to outlaw apprehending an individual in a way that restricts any level of air or blood. Had this been upheld by the New York State Supreme Court, police officers would have been immensely restricted from performing their duty and thus been placed in even greater physical and societal peril.


This decreased ability of police officers to stop and dissuade crime has been stated by USA Today columnist Jason Johnson as one of the main factors for the skyrocketing levels of crime throughout many major US cities in 2020. The correlation between cities that chose, or threatened to, defund their police departments and the rate of crime shows that these societal pressures against officers have increasingly perilous effects. Rather than benefiting the populace as these measures were intended to do, they have been shown to have adverse effects and have actually played a significant role in the raising of crime rates. The drastic increase in crime and the limitations placed on police officers, both by legal and societal standards, seems to have directly led to a massive spike in crime, which, if left unaddressed, could continue to increase.


The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, throughout its existence, has helped to expose a greater population of the public to severely negative actions performed by certain police officers. This exposure has led to victims of these actions, such as George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, becoming well-known throughout both the United States and abroad. Knowing the names of these victims, and news cycles in the US bringing this issue to constant attention, has had the unfortunate effect of skewing the viewpoints of many individuals in regards to police abuse. A survey conducted by the Skeptic Research Center has revealed that 44 percent of liberals and 20 percent of conservatives estimated that between “1,000 and 10,000 unarmed black men were killed” by police officers each year. This number, in actuality, is typically found in the teens or twenties. In 2019 the number of unarmed black men killed by police officers was only 27. This number, when compared to the number of interactions that police officers have each year (with 61.5 million people having had interactions with officers in 2018), is a significantly smaller percentage of police violence than is typically thought. These discrepancies, between the perceived and factual commonality of police violence, have affected many individuals' thoughts against police officers.


An Argument for Broken Windows Policing


Broken windows policing is a theory postulated by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling suggesting that an environment can, and often does, directly correlate with the relative safety and security of an area. Places with a high level of graffiti and broken windows, as these scientists suggest, are often prone to high rates of violence and criminality. Kelling suggests that an unfixed broken window demonstrates that a community does not generally seek to better themselves in the social strata.


The broken windows theory suggests that a community does not care about outward appearances and therefore must not be interested in increasing the standard of living conditions. If the correlation Kelling describes truly exists, then fixing a community’s environment would have a direct impact on the rates of crime in a given area. Fixing one’s environment can be accomplished by pursuing vandals and thieves, as well as rectifying their criminal activities (i.e. painting over vandalism or fixing vandalised property).


The Model of New York for Broken Windows Policing


The idea of prosecuting lesser crimes in order to reduce felonious crimes has proven to have moderate success, as evidenced by the 1990s New York City government. Under the leadership of Police Commissioner Bratton and Mayor Giuliani, New York was successfully able to greatly improve its safety and security over the 1990s. Both violent and non-violent crimes decreased drastically over this period, namely, as the legal scholars Hope Corman and Naci Mocan suggest, as a result of this form of policing.


Some critics, such as John Donohue, argue that the improved socio-economic conditions in New York at the time led to this drastic decrease. However, Donohue believes that the perceived magnitude of the effect that improved conditions have on criminal activities is greatly overstated. This is due, in part, to better economic conditions leading to a decrease in many forms of crime but not all. Hope Corman, a Professor from Rider University, argues that this increase in arrests and lower incident rates came as a result of increased morale and efficiency of the New York Police Department (NYPD). Bratton and Giuliani, in adopting this form of policing, were able to transform New York from a city of crime to one of relative peace and security.


Economic Impacts of Rising Crime


The decrease of this security, during the period from 2000-2022 as seen in the NYPD crime stats, comes with a massive decrease in the economic and tourism industries. The tourism industry, in the past few years, has lost an estimated U$ 60 billion of revenue (approximately GBP 44.15 billion), greatly hampering the minority and immigrant populations whom it supports. Over 60 percent of the tourism industry is minority-owned which means that a vast proportion of this revenue would have directly gone to these individuals.


A return to broken windows policing would incentivise different industries to re-enter previously crime-ridden areas and thus greatly increase the possible capital that a given community could gain. These economic incentives further decrease the commonality of criminal activities as it is commonly postulated that in an area with a greater level of economic prosperity, crimes occur at a vastly lower rate. This is typically thought to occur as a result of the lower unemployment rates in areas with low crime and economic incentives. A return to broken windows policing would allow for these industries to greatly recover from the hardships that have plagued them the past few years, from the increase in crime to Covid-19.


Broken windows policing, although vastly beneficial in theory and in practice, has some downsides which were prominently evident in the early 2000s era of NYPD policing. By this time, the crime rate in New York had dropped significantly and thus arrests for these crimes should have been expected to further drop. They did drop; however, it was not in direct proportion to the decrease in crime. These crime statistics directly encouraged ambitious individuals in the NYPD to push their officers to arrest more and more individuals to continue to appear as effective and efficient at keeping their city safe. A survey of 491 retired NYPD captains found that a high number of them felt “greater pressure from management to doctor major crimes”. These revelations, however, greatly helped reduce the amount of misclassification of crimes as audits are now regularly completed to ensure the accuracy and truthfulness of police reports. Some state that the usage of broken windows policing led to a greater number of negative interactions with communities throughout New York, namely minority communities.


The increased presence of the NYPD in these communities, however, stems from crime data that the NYPD CompStat uses to effectively utilise police officers and not from any ethnic or racial prejudice. The increased police presence stemmed from general crime trends in specific geographic areas not in relation to the general demographics of an area. In areas without “high levels of victimisation” residents often do not feel the need to call upon police officers as frequently and thus, the police presence in these areas is far less common and intrusive.


Therefore in my opinion and the opinion of ex-NYPD Police Commissioner Bratton, broken windows policing, when properly utilised, does not directly impart any racial or ethnic prejudices on police enforcement. The only relation that a higher concentration of police officers has is in proportion to the amount of crime in a given area.


Broken windows policing, in my opinion as evinced both in the theoretical and practical examples, greatly benefits communities which seek to lower crime rates. The increased police presence in areas that are generally predisposed to higher rates of crime directly benefits the communities that live there. These benefits include both a higher standard of living and increased economic profits as a decrease in crime incentivises investments into an area.


Although there have been some negative allegations against this form of policing, in regard to racial prejudices, these allegations in my judgment are not necessarily accurate as they merely attempt to address issues present in crime-ridden areas regardless of race or ethnicity.


Having more police in an area would, therefore, greatly improve both the quality of life and the general level of security that residents have in their communities. The benefits from utilising this form of policing directly increase the profits of a large proportion of immigrant and minority-owned businesses through increased levels of tourism. The return to broken windows policing in New York City, in my opinion, would greatly benefit a vast number of people within New York.