Over the last quarter century, violent crime rates fell. Nowhere was this decline more dramatic than in New York City. Franklin Zimring, a data-literate law professor, has studied the city’s achievements for years. Zimring said:
New York not only became safer than any large city in America, it did so while its population grew and its prison population fell.
Statistics illustrate the dramatic “policing difference” enjoyed by New York. While the homicide rate dropped by half in the nine largest cities other than NYC between 1990 and 2009, it dropped by 82 percent here. Rapes dropped 77 percent in New York, compared with a median rate of 49 percent in those other cities.
New York showed larger declines in every major crime, though particularly in robbery, burglary and auto theft. While robberies dropped 49 percent in other major cities, they fell an astounding 84 percent here.
What exactly changed? According to Zimring, the New York Police Department “rapidly expanded the police force and targeted specific crimes in specific areas, like cleaning up outdoor drug markets.” Following a data-centric strategy, police units were sent where their maps showed a concentration of criminal activity. By focusing on such “hot spots,” they diminished the opportunities for predation and reduced crime. In short, crime has proven to be more situational and contingent than many previously thought. Most crime appears to be opportunistic.
Any one of us could be accused of breaking the law, and any one of us could be the victim of criminal predation. A realistic concern for individual liberties, as opposed to a ritualistic one, must address both. Social norms and moral exhortation provide some restraint of despotic tendencies, but these alone are not sufficient. Punitive measures are also necessary, as the astute eighteenth century philosopher Cesare Beccaria said, “which impress themselves directly on the senses and which, by dint of repetition, are constantly present in the mind as a counter-balance to the strong impressions of those self-interested passions which are ranged against the universal good.”
Something like Beccaria’s insight lies behind “broken windows” policing, which is the practice of maintaining order in public spaces. Two proponents of this practice, William Bratton, the New York City police commissioner, and George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice, recently restated their case for a policy that is widely, and often ignorantly, disparaged. Bratton and Kelling said, “in communities contending with high levels of disruption, maintaining order not only improves the quality of life for residents; it also reduces opportunities for more serious crime.” Failure to do so sends a message that a community “cannot or will not control minor crimes, and thus will be unable to deter more serious ones. A neighborhood where minor offenses go unchallenged soon becomes a breeding ground for more serious criminal activity and, ultimately, for violence.”
Bratton and Kelling have insisted for years that order-maintenance policing is not “stop and frisk,” and it is not “zero tolerance.” They also acknowledged that some neighborhoods are singled out for more intervention than others, which they defended:
A small portion of the minority population drives the street crime and disorder in these neighborhoods, victimizing entire communities. In 2013, for example, 92 percent of murder suspects in New York were African-American or Hispanic, as were 97 percent of identified suspects in shooting incidents. One hundred years ago, the perpetrators might have been Irish, Italian, German, and Jewish, but the underlying social conditions and the patterns of crime and disorder would have been similar.
With modern, data-driven policing—exemplified by Compstat, which uses exhaustive crime data and mapping to identify crime trends and hold precinct commanders accountable for their areas—these patterns, not some determination to target minorities, determine law enforcement’s response. That is, when the NYPD analyzes and maps crime and disorder in the city, and then develops its crime-prevention plans and allocates resources to specific neighborhoods, the effort will necessarily target high-crime areas, and those tend to have a preponderance of African-Americans and Hispanics and are usually the poorest neighborhoods in the city. In neighborhoods without high levels of victimization, crime, and disorder, residents maintain order through informal mechanisms and support networks and don’t need to call 311 or 911 regularly for assistance; in these areas, police presence is far less intrusive.
Walking up to a person and pulling a trigger, as as cop-turned-sociologist Peter Moskos said, “is something some people choose to do and others do not. Somehow, lots of poor people—even in Baltimore—manage to live decent and even joyous lives without killing somebody.” It is “a strangely insulting concept,” Moskos said, “that criminals somehow represent the community more than the police.”
For years, the role played by the police in reducing violent crime has been dismissed by activists and academics. Instead, critics cite an aging population, fewer unwanted pregnancies, less use of crack cocaine, the phasing out of lead paint, etc. Other factors probably contributed something to the decline in crime rates, but I find it hard to believe that changes in policing contributed nothing. In fact, there is independent research to support Bratton and Kelling’s claim that policing matters:
Until recently, Broken Windows critics could dismiss New York’s success in fighting crime as anecdotal, suggesting correlation without causation. But in recent years, at least three randomized experiments, published in refereed journals, attest to Broken Windows’ impact on crime. Rutgers criminologist Anthony Braga and his colleagues conducted two field experiments: the first in Jersey City, New Jersey; and the second in Lowell, Massachusetts. In each case, multiple high-crime areas of the city were identified and randomly assigned to experimental and control conditions. Police in the control areas continued routine policing. In the experimental areas, police took a problem-solving approach that, in both cities, involved aggressive order maintenance. Crime declined in the experimental areas at greater rates than in the control areas and was not displaced to adjacent neighborhoods.
In the Netherlands, experimenters took a different approach. Their findings support the central social insight of the Broken Windows theory: that disorder breeds crime. University of Groningen social scientist Kees Keizer and his colleagues conducted six field experiments in which they artificially created opportunities for crime in both orderly and disorderly environments. In one case, they placed an envelope containing visible cash so that it was hanging out of a postbox. The baseline condition was a clean postbox; the experimental condition was a postbox covered with graffiti and surrounded by litter. In the baseline condition, 13 percent of those who passed the postbox stole the money. In the experimental condition, 27 percent stole the money. The other five experiments had similar outcomes.
Better policing can be an alternative to, rather than a source of, mass incarceration. “Imprisonment in New York State penitentiaries has declined by 25 percent since 2000,” Bratton and Kelling noted, “driven by a 69 percent decline in the number of New York City court commitments. Likewise, the Gotham jail population has declined 45 percent since 1992.” Fewer crimes committed means fewer people sent to jail or prison. “Young men may be receiving summonses and desk-appearance tickets for quality-of-life misdemeanors, but early and swift intervention has likely kept some of them from more serious criminal behavior that would result in lengthy incarceration.”
Apart from the deterrent effect that minor arrests may have on individual offenders, the management of public spaces to reduce disorderly behavior also lessens daily opportunities for crime. Just as disorder encourages crime, order breeds more order. As bullies and shooters get driven off street corners and the risks of being killed or terrorized diminish, the law-abiding community reemerges and starts to exert the kind of informal social control common to more prosperous neighborhoods. In these transformed public spaces, people—especially young people—are subject to more restraint and are less likely to wind up in jail. It’s important to note, too, that quality-of-life arrests represent only a portion of the overall total of misdemeanor arrests in the city. About 35 percent of misdemeanor arrests in New York City are for assault and larceny—crimes that most people would not consider minor. Traffic offenses account for 16 percent. Another 12 percent are for theft of service in the subway (fare jumping) and frauds involving MetroCards. Steady increases in these categories have been primary factors behind rising misdemeanor arrests in recent years. Taken together, traffic-related offenses, fare jumping, and crimes against persons, including domestic violence and theft of smartphones and other electronic equipment, account for 63 percent of all misdemeanor arrests in New York City. Broken Windows critics tend to overlook the fact that fewer than 10 percent of misdemeanor arrestees, of any type, are actually sentenced to jail time in New York City, and few of those for Broken Windows offenses.
Bratton and Kelling concede that some misdemeanor arrests, like for possession of small amounts of marijuana, are “unnecessary and of limited utility.” They also recognize that there are other cases where “a summons could prove just as effective a deterrent as an arrest.” Efficient penalties should be the policy goal, not theatrical severity.
Make no mistake, there should be no impunity for police officers who abuse their authority. When an officer harms or kills a suspect who posed no plausible threat to anyone’s life, they should be held to account (with due process, not by vigilante fanatics). But there can be no common cause between liberals and police abolitionists.
David Frum had a sage warning to overzealous reformers. “The first task of government is to protect the lives and property of citizens. Governments that cannot or will not perform that task forfeit their legitimacy—as will, by the way, any cause or movement that argues that citizens must accept a higher risk of violence or robbery as their contribution to somebody else’s ideal of justice.” Frum and I may not agree on whether to legalize marijuana or how far incarceration reform should go, but he speaks to something that no liberal can afford to forget. In most people’s ideal of justice, freedom from murder and predation is not negotiable.
UPDATE (August 26, 2015): Criminologist William Sousa argued that order-maintenance policing “should encourage proper discretion on the part of officers.” Many minor offenses can be handled informally, and arrests should be the last resort.
In a pithy summary of what he meant by “broken windows,” George Kelling said, “small things matter in a community and, if nothing is done about them, they can lead to worse things.” Kelling attributed his own views on “the importance of maintaining order” to his research on police foot patrol:
Starting in the early 1970s, in churches, social centers, living rooms, and walking the streets, I listened to citizens talk about their problems and demand action. If you asked them to list their five greatest concerns, at least three, but more likely four, would be “minor problems:” graffiti, youths drinking in parks, “homeless” peeing on their stoops, prostitutes attempting to hustle fathers in front of their children, “johns” hustling their teen age daughters, abandoned homes, unkempt properties, and so on. These complaints came not from white suburban or middle class areas, but from poor residents, usually minorities, in the heart of inner cities.
Kelling insisted that community policing is a necessary compliment to the maintenance of order. He also said, in a democracy, the responsibility for maintaining order is a shared one between police and citizens.