In March of 1982 Atlantic Magazine published an article called “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety.” In this article George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson explain how signs of decay in neighborhoods that go untended lead to further breakdown in the community. The idea is that, regardless of neighborhood demographics, if a building has a broken window that goes unrepaired, soon all of its windows will be broken. The abandoned property, with its weeds and peeling paint, is a kind of urban signaling that says “no one cares here” and that eventually becomes the attitude of those who live, work or otherwise have cause to frequent the area.
The theory has become the golden rule in urban policing. It has become the justification for a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement, out of which has grown a heavy reliance on the controversial Stop and Frisk tactic. This approach is part of a community policing strategy to combat low-level disorder, sending a message to the more serious criminals. It makes sense actually, when reasonably applied. It only becomes questionable when the procedure used by officers to maintain order violates the constitutional rights of the innocent citizens that the police are meant to protect. The Stop & Frisk procedure as it is being used has become such a broken window signaling a lack of care and oversight in the NYPD.
Last year over 600,000 individuals were stopped by the NYPD. A stop is when a person is detained by an officer “by means of physical force or by show of authority.” It is a procedure that is only intended to be used when there is “reasonable suspicion” that an individual has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime. An officer’s “sixth sense” is not considered reasonable, but a study for Center for Constitutional Rights that looked at police records indicates that some members of the NYPD disagree. The study showed that in more than half of all stops the reason given by the officer did not meet the requirements for “reasonable suspicion.” The use of Stop and Frisk in each of those cases was an illegal abuse of the police officer’s authority. That’s over 300,000 instances where NYPD officers violated the constitution.
To get back to broken windows, whether you look at it as poor policing or as out and out police misconduct, there has been a breakdown of order in the NYPD. What starts as the perceived minor offense—infringing on a few hundred thousand people’s rights—becomes full-fledged criminal activity as seen in the recent sting operation were five NYPD officers were arrested for smuggling $1 million in guns, cigarettes and slot machines. In one month these officers help to transport 20 weapons from New Jersey to New York further diminishing the 1.25% weapons seizure rate. The gun that one officer confiscates through the needless harassment of innocent civilians is put back on the street by another. Our police departments might benefit greatly spending time sweating their own “small stuff.”
The most unfortunate part of all this twisted logic is that the real issue is public safety and quality of life. If Stop & Frisk creates an atmosphere of hatred and distrust towards the police, as evidence has shown it does in those communities that are disproportionately targeted, then it is a failure in those communities that represent over 50% of New Yorkers. Also unfortunate is that this zero-tolerance policing makes a metaphor of what is a very real problem in high-crime neighborhoods. There are many buildings that have been left untended, creating urban blight. Communities should be empowered so that vacant properties are kept in good repair. There could be more incentives to fill these vacancies with people in desperate need of homes, as opposed to throwing families onto the street. It seems the most logical solution to this broken window syndrome would be, simply, fixing the broken windows.