In a recent article at Vox, Dara Lind and German Lopez looked at the various theories for why crime has declined so much over the past two decades, based on a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice. One of the commonly accepted explanations is the trend in “broken windows” policing, the idea that aggressively focusing on smaller quality-of-life crimes lowers the incidence of crime overall. In looking at the evidence, however, they conclude:
The bottom line: Too difficult to tell. Ultimately, different departments define “broken-windows policing” differently and implement it in different ways — and, again, often alongside other changes. It’s true it’s hard to tell why crime declines in cities, but that applies to broken-windows policing as much as it applies to other macro explanations.
Furthermore, one of the main proponents of the broken windows success story, Malcolm Gladwell, has started to back away from that conclusion.
The Brennan Center report also comes down hard on the idea that mass incarceration is beneficial for reducing crime.
One thing that characterized both the broken windows and mass incarceration trends is that they were disproportionately used against minority communities. The protests in the second half of 2014 and into this year are a reaction to that. Minority communities feel harassed and victimized by police. Eric Garner’s last words “I Can’t Breathe” struck a chord for many people across the country who’ve dealt with it.
I’ve never bought into the idea that broken windows has any benefit. The idea that you can create order through fear and intimidation is a delusion. The combination of broken windows and mass incarceration with a society where so many little things are criminalized, from jaywalking to selling loose cigarettes to pot possession, inevitably ends up with increased antagonism between the police and the public. We’re now at the point where trying to measure the benefits of these crime prevention strategies needs to be accompanied with efforts to measure their drawbacks.
News items from the last two weeks…