The Problem Is the Abuse of ‘Broken Windows,’ Not the Policy

If police abandon communities of color, will their quality of life suffer?

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Two police officers patrol Times Square on Sept. 22, 2013, in New York City.  

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The irrepressible “broken windows” debate is a battle between two camps: the scientific one that questions whether it works and the practical one of old-fashioned common sense. But in the movement to do away with broken windows, let’s not get comfortable with the notion that we suddenly don’t need police in communities that still need a police presence.

Data on the success of broken-windows policing is admittedly shaky. Researchers give more credit (pdf) to the decline of crack than they do to smart police work.

Still, it takes me back to fond memories as a scrawny kid raised in working-class North Philadelphia. Back then my grandmother would fanatically defend the sidewalk in front of our ancient row home from invading trash, cigarette butts and the constant passerby who would lazily drop assorted forms of pre-recycle-era food cartons.

Of course I was always dispatched for disposal duty with broom, dustpan and grilling stare from the household matriarch. And not only was I directed to sweep out the sidewalk in front of our porch, but I was also deployed to do it for every other house within a 100-foot range. It went viral: from sidewalks and steps to finally clearing out an abandoned 7-foot grass lot that was both an eyesore and magnet for all sorts of foul play. I knew what was back there because it took me a full, 10-hour day to mow it.

As an annoyed teen, you just don’t understand. But years later, as a homeowner, taxpayer and parent, the logic of it sets in. If there’s one common social edict that binds us all (regardless of color, class or religion), it’s that we all want a decent standard of living.  

Our broken-windows talk is, then, a bit junky on both sides. Police departments love using it as a balancing-budget act—but that’s the point where it probably takes a turn for the worse. Obviously, there’s an ample amount of discontent from accumulating evidence that cops have abused it—but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should scrap it altogether as some have suggested.

Because ultimately, most citizens living in dense, urban communities of color believe they deserve a quality of life (along with schools and public services) similar to that found in, say, an affluent, majority-white suburb. And why shouldn’t they? Let’s not get this conversation jammed into a racially twisted stereotype that black outrage over broken windows means that black folks as a whole love dingy and distressed living conditions. That’s dangerously close to that old slave-master mindset that squalid plantation quarters were a godsend for African slaves. Hence, while we can argue till we drop over the merits of broken-windows theory and use, we can probably agree on one key trigger: community frustration.

Residential grievances gradually grow into 911 calls or constituent letters to city officials. Pressure mounts. Soon we all become active collaborators in systematic broken-windows application, whether we know it or not. Few want shady characters loitering in front of their apartment building. Everyone wants a paved street. Most want speed bumps so their kids don’t get hit by careless drivers. And let’s face it: No one wants to live next to a foreclosed house full of squatters.

That’s why a Quinnipiac University poll in August found that 60 percent of New Yorkers “supported having police issue summonses or make arrests for low-level quality-of-life offenses.” Not surprisingly, 56 percent and 64 percent of black and Latino voters, respectively, backed the broken-windows policing strategy, along with 61 percent of whites.

As interesting is a more recent December Quinnipiac poll of New Yorkers backing the previous one: Fifty percent of black voters agreed that “police should stop someone selling loose cigarettes illegally on a street corner,” and 46 percent of African Americans surveyed said police “should use whatever amount of force is necessary to arrest someone” who doesn’t comply with arresting officers (versus just 15 percent who said police should “walk away”).

Perhaps communities reached a point where cops were stuck with all the dirty work, like that annoyed teen raking up used drug needles and condoms out of that large patch of North Philly earth. Or, perhaps, calling it broken windows was a huge messaging mistake in the first place—it’s hard squeezing Kool-Aid out of anything broken when you’re probably better off with the positively reinforcing “quality of life.”

Still, police irritation with the thankless drudgery of their gigs and growing protest against broken-windows strategy shouldn’t justify law-enforcement work stoppages or a future in which officers unilaterally tap out to leave unwelcoming hoods on their own. Maybe fewer poor people are paying traffic tickets with fewer summonses issued, but let’s pause to make sure we’re not complicit in a dangerous trend.

“[We can’t] allow headlines to generate public policy,” Eric Adams, the Brooklyn, N.Y., borough president and a former cop, told The Root recently. “Broken windows is actually good policing practice. I’m just not supporting abuse of broken windows.”

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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