From “Broken Windows” To Black Codes

As someone who primarily thought of George Kelling as an influential academic supporter of “community policing” and “problem oriented policing” back in the 1970s and 1980s, I never really considered his collaboration with James Q. Wilson on an essay about “broken windows” as a symbol of the abandonment of communities to crime as his signature work. It also took me a while to realize that in the name of “broken windows policing” a lot of police departments were in effect adopting “zero tolerance” policies that were the antithesis of community policing: an ongoing siege of high-crime minority communities in which small-bore status offenses were aggressively targeted for arrests.

Kelling now seems to be alternating between efforts to defend his original work on “broken windows” and complaints that it has been perverted by local governments and police departments seeking an easy formula for high-visibility initiatives that inflict vast collateral damage on the communities they are supposed to be protecting. His clearest indictment of the latter was offered yesterday at Politico Magazine:

[W]ith the highly publicized deaths of a number of African-Americans at the hands of white police officers over the past year, so-called broken-windows policing has come under attack by activists and academics alike. Such police acts as stopping Michael Brown for jaywalking in Ferguson, Mo., and confronting Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes in New York, are said to be examples of broken-windows policing run amok. Some have argued that this approach to policing might have been appropriate in the days of high crime during the 1970s and 1980s, but is no longer relevant since crime rates have declined. Others claim that broken windows is responsible for the high rate of incarceration. Others yet say that broken windows does not prevent crime.

Despite these and other criticisms, the demand for order remains high in minority and poor communities. And I would argue that our theory has been largely misunderstood. First of all, broken windows was never intended to be a high-arrest program. Although it has been practiced as such in many cities, neither Wilson nor I ever conceived of it in those terms. Broken-windows policing is a highly discretionary set of activities that seeks the least intrusive means of solving a problem—whether that problem is street prostitution, drug dealing in a park, graffiti, abandoned buildings, or actions such as public drunkenness. Moreover, depending on the problem, good broken windows policing seeks partners to address it: social workers, city code enforcers, business improvement district staff, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, and others. The goal is to reduce the level of disorder in public spaces so that citizens feel safe, are able to use them, and businesses thrive. Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort—not the first.

I guess one could add that shooting “disorderly” people should really be a last resort.

Kelling goes on to say that he and Wilson were acutely aware in proposing an enhanced “order function” for police of the precedent of post-Civil War “black codes” in the South that used aggressive arrests for “status offenses” as a central tool for keeping ex-slave populations as close to slavery as possible, and wanted to make sure nothing like that happened again; they were indeed emphatic on the point that it was minority residents of high-crime neighborhoods who demanded attention to “broken windows.” It’s too bad this distinction wasn’t absorbed by local governments and police officials who saw it as a justification for treating minority citizens as enemies on enemy turf that could only be “controlled” by massive shows of force, intimidation, and wanton arrests. Until the current backlash began, de facto Black Codes had in fact emerged all over the country. Without laying blame on Kelling himself, I think it’s a bit much to propose that it was all some terrible misunderstanding.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.