One of the most influential policing concepts of our era, the broken-windows theory, holds that disorder and crime are "usually inextricably linked in a kind of developmental sequence." At the community level, ignoring disorder leads to more of it, just as a building with a broken window soon has other windows broken. That insight has been widely embraced by law enforcement in the United States. But as Ken White observed in a recent post, we've yet to apply it to police agencies. "If tolerating broken windows leads to more broken windows and escalating crime," he asks, "what impact does tolerating police misconduct have?" He points to recent examples in order to argue that the consequences are dire:
[J]ust as neighborhood thugs could once break windows with impunity, police can generally kill with impunity. They can shoot unarmed men and lie about it. They can roll up and execute a child with a toy as casually as one might in Grand Theft Auto. They can bumble around opening doors with their gun hand and kill bystanders, like a character in a dark farce, with little fear of serious consequences. They can choke you to death for getting a little mouthy about selling loose cigarettes. They can shoot you because they aren't clear on who the bad guy is, and they can shoot you because they're terrible shots, and they can shoot you because they saw something that might be a weapon in your hand—something that can be ... any fucking thing at all, including nothing.
... We're not pursuing the breakers of windows. If anything, we are permitting the system ... to entrench their protected right to act that way. We give them ... third and fourth chances. We pretend they have supernatural powers of crime detection even when science shows that's bullshit. We fight desperately to support their word even when they are proven liars. We sneer that "criminals have too many rights," then give the armed representatives of our government stunning levels of procedural protections when they abuse or even kill us.
I'd never thought about police abuses in quite this way before. But it seems to me that the reforms implied by applying broken-windows theory to police officers are very similar to many of the policy changes that critics of policing have lately been advocating. How to consistently punish police officers at the first sign of disordered behavior? Record their interactions to a cloud server that they do not control. Assign independent prosecutors to handle cases of unlawful behavior. And end the practice of arbitrators reversing punishments given to misbehaving cops.
As a former St. Louis policeman put it in the Washington Post, "The problem is that cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it. These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police. Even when officers get caught, they know they’ll be investigated by their friends, and put on paid leave. My colleagues would laughingly refer to this as a free vacation. It isn’t a punishment. And excessive force is almost always deemed acceptable in our courts and among our grand juries. Prosecutors are tight with law enforcement, and share the same values and ideas."
There are, however, scattered examples of anti-brutality interventions bearing fruit. And any officer who objects to higher-ups with the discretion to punish even relatively minor police misconduct should reflect on whether they believe cops ought to have power and discretion to enforce relatively minor crimes on their beats.
When James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling sketched their broken windows theory for The Atlantic in the March 1982 issue, they included the following passage:
A determined skeptic might acknowledge that a skilled foot-patrol officer can maintain order but still insist that this sort of "order" has little to do with the real sources of community fear--that is, with violent crime. To a degree, that is true.
But ... outside observers should not assume that they know how much of the anxiety now endemic in many big-city neighborhoods stems from a fear of "real" crime and how much from a sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters. The people of Newark, to judge from their behavior and their remarks to interviewers, apparently assign a high value to public order, and feel relieved and reassured when the police help them maintain that order.
Similarly, outside observers today should not assume that they know how much of the anxiety now endemic in many big-city neighborhoods stems from a fear of civilian crime and how much from a sense that cops are disorderly—a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters. Many people in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City, and elsewhere would feel relieved and reassured if bad cops were stopped at the first sign of misbehavior rather than kept around for their example to spread.
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