Despite claims by Sessions and Trump, ‘broken windows’ policing is broken

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A central goal of any community is the safety and security of its members. Police must work within the community with mutual trust and respect, and strive for positive community relationships if they are to play a role in achieving this goal.

However, President Donald Trump and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions have promised to prioritize aggressive and ineffective policing tactics, which are ultimately harmful to communities. These practices are rooted in what’s commonly referred to as a broken windows policing strategy.

{mosads}George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson popularized this highly controversial policing strategy in a piece in The Atlantic Monthly, where they theorized that the policing of “public disorder,” such as loitering and nuisance offenses, reduces the incidence of serious and violent crimes. Disorder policing approaches include highly aggressive order maintenance strategies, including misdemeanor arrests and stop, question, and frisks.


This style of policing has been widely adopted although the data on its efficacy is mixed. For example, one study found that “after reviewing a series of evaluations on the role disorder policing may have played in New York City’s crime drop during the 1990s, the National Research Council’s Committee to Review Police Policy and Practices concluded that these studies did not provide clear evidence of effectiveness.” 

This policing strategy is highly controversial because it has been used as a method for surveilling communities of color, fostering community mistrust of law enforcement and encouraging racial profiling.

A 2015 systemic review and meta-analysis of police disorder programs highlights the weaknesses of broken windows policing:

“Aggressive order maintenance strategies that target individual disorderly behaviors do not generate significant crime reductions. In contrast, community problem-solving approaches that seek to change social and physical disorder conditions at particular places produce significant crime reductions. These findings suggest that, when considering a policing disorder approach, police departments should adopt a ‘community coproduction model’ rather than drift toward a zero-tolerance policing model, which focuses on a subset of social incivilities.”

Trump has warned that he would like to see a national stop and frisk policy although stop and frisk is unproven and has a tremendous impact on reducing police legitimacy and community trust. In fact, the Office of Inspector General for the NYPD found that issuing summonses did not reduce crime, finding “no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime.” If the community resents and is fearful of the police, how can they then been expected to trust the police? 

Congress and policymakers that are interested in improving public safety should move away from practices that only serve to alienate communities and devote additional resources to strategies that work. Below are five policies for improving community safety.

1. Empower community through self-policing initiatives.

Lawmakers should empower community members to police themselves. A Queensbridge housing projects program allows community members to intervene and deescalate conflicts, and there have been no murders in this community since the program began. Lawmakers should support similar programs that focus on problem-solving approaches that are more community-centered and build community capacity. 

2. Focus on the physical enhancement, rather than targeting of people.

The wholesale profiling of entire segments of the population is inefficient and ineffective. Instead police should focus on the use of structural and environment strategies to reduce crimes, such as adding lighting in areas that have high levels of crimes, improving the physical conditions of abandoned buildings, and adding fences to secure properties. 

3. Focus on collaboration, not profiling.

Congress should reward law enforcement agencies that listen to communities and encourage respectful community collaboration. Law enforcement agencies should adopt strategies for increasing community trust and provide a space for community members to serve as partners in defining what safety means in their communities. The widespread and systematic use of increasing police-civilian encounters through stop, frisk, and questioning, misdemeanor arrests, and summonses for less serious offenses should be prohibited.

4. Support pre-booking diversion programs that prevent arrests.

Where possible, lawmakers should focus on creating an avenue for individuals to avoid the costs of arrests. Pre-booking, non-arrest diversion programs that allow individuals who would otherwise be arrested to avoid some of harsh consequences of having an arrest record should be created.  Arrests increase the likelihood of future involvement in the criminal justice system, affect job security, and family stability. Pre-booking diversion programs that divert individuals to community organizations and outside of the police precinct should be supported.  

5. Foster a culture of accountability and human rights.

Police officers should be accountable public servants who work collaboratively, transparently, and fairly with all of the communities they serve. Lawmakers should support law enforcement agencies that create a regular survey (Ex: Milwaukee survey) to be fielded to the community to gauge their experiences and perceptions of the police and use this information to inform police department policies and practices, police officer evaluations, and police officer pay incentives. The Opportunity Agenda will be hosting a free webinar on broken windows policing on March 22.

I. India Thusi is the associate counsel for The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab. She has litigated cases on policing and structural inequality in the criminal justice system. Follow her on Twitter @inGerri, and the Opportunity Agenda @oppagenda

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


Tags Crime Criminal justice Donald Trump Donald Trump Jeff Sessions Sessions

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