Broken Windows Is Broken Policing


The “broken windows” theory of policing, the operating philosophy of the New York Police Department, is based on the idea that curtailing small criminal infractions helps prevent larger ones. The idea is that crime, like litter, accumulates quickly when there’s some in sight, so cracking down on jay-walkers and subway turnstile jumpers prevents muggings and assaults. It’s essentially the “stitch in time saves nine” adage, applied to crime. But broken windows policing has always paid more attention to certain windows, and taken the petty infractions of people of color far more seriously. The result is a court system clogged with cases of minor infractions and systematic discrimination against communities of color.

One of my first assignments as a young, over-eager reporter in a big New York newspaper was heading to night court, the shift between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., to wait for an arraignment on a medium-profile case the paper was tracking. Night court was a good assignment for a rookie reporter: You aren’t facing the inclement weather and uncertainty of a stake-out, and you’re near-guaranteed a couple extra hours pay because of how late the arraignments go. And if your familiarity with the court system is pretty much limited to episodes of Law and Order and that NBC sitcom Night Court, like mine was, there’s something glamorous and official about the idea of reporting from night court.

But, of course, there’s nothing close to glamour in night court. There’s a utilitarian room with a few scattered observers and a bored-looking judge. And there’s the slow, methodical, grinding wheel of the justice system going through dozens of “broken windows” infractions. On my nights there, I saw people dragged in front of the judge for biking the wrong way down a street, loitering, panhandling in the subway, and possessing small amounts of marijuana. Most of the defendants going up in front of the judge were people of color.

The Police Reforming Organization conducted a study on the arraignment process of broken windows crimes, and their results were similar to my night court experience. They spent several days in September monitoring 191 arraignments in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, including people arrested for riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, putting a foot on a subway seat and sleeping on a park bench. Of those, 173 of those being arraigned, or 91 percent, were people of color. And the vast majority of those arraigned, some 85 percent, left the courtroom with their case dismissed or a minor penalty.

“The court had clearly decided that the person was not a risk to the community,” the organization’s report read. “This kind of policing – effectively criminalizing activities that are victimless, and seen by most people as harmless, and disproportionately charging one group of persons as offenders – breeds cynicism, resentment and resistance and can lead, in worst case scenarios to senseless injury and death.”

These are the fruits of broken windows policing: A clogged court system and dozens of lives disrupted. The disconnect between the court system and the police is nothing new, but the time and resources wasted with the police cracking down on crimes that the court doesn’t recognize is staggering. The police department’s policy, not the windows, are what’s in need of fixing here.


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