The Breakdown of Broken Windows?

Authored By 
Michael Sierra-Arevalo
Blog contributor 
Affiliated Fellow
January 28, 2015

For several weeks in a row, the number of arrests and summonses made by the NYPD has dropped sharply. Though the both police commissioner Bill Bratton and police sergeants’ union president Edward Mullins deny that the decrease is the result of a coordinated effort on the part of either department or union, the numbers are telling. In the past few weeks, summonses for minor violations have dropped over 90%. Similar decreases are mirrored in plummeting parking and traffic tickets.

What we haven’t seen, despite the drastic decrease in “broken windows” policing of low-level offenses, is a city gone mad. Though Patrick Lynch of the Police Benevolent Association continues to publicly espouse the stance that the NYPD (and police more generally) are all that stands between citizens and the violence of decades past, the marked decreases in arrests have not been followed by an outpouring of violent crime.

It seems, then, that the venerable theory of broken windows proposed by Kelling and Wilson over 30 years ago might be in need of serious reconsideration.

In short, broken windows suggests a bottom-up approach to crime reduction – the best way to address robberies and homicide is to reduce low-level disorder like turnstile jumping, graffiti, public urination, and squeegee men. By curtailing these nuisances, citizens will be less fearful, more willing to keep a watchful eye over their community, and help control crime themselves.

Conversely, when quality of life offenses go unpunished, communities grow fearful, they disengage from public life, and criminals are emboldened by the disarray to commit more serious crimes. Trash in an alley begets more trash; one broken window in the abandoned factory leads to dozens more.

The theory has influenced American law enforcement for decades, forming the foundation for the style of policing professed by Commissioner Bratton since his time in Los Angeles. Despite its widespread influence, and belying its elegant simplicity, the current situation in New York provides further evidence that broken windows may not be where our faith is best placed.

As suggestive as recent crime and enforcement patterns in New York City are, the recent spate of decreased police activity (and lack of increased crime) has only been going on for a few weeks, and we should thus be careful to extrapolate too far. Still, with the lack of low-level enforcement failing to throw the city into anarchy, the constant police contacts that touch millions of citizens would suggest that broken windows policing isn’t worth it. 

Misdemeanors – not felonies – make up the vast majority of criminal cases. It’s these cases that clog court dockets and burn through tax dollars at an astounding rate. Further, as shown by Yale law professor Issa Kohler-Hausmann, most of these misdemeanors result in no finding of guilt and no real punishment. Instead, a misdemeanor arrest is the first step in a Kafkaesque merry-go-round of bureaucratic hoop jumping that can turn a simple marijuana arrest into a year(s)-long legal odyssey.

While these misdemeanor cases are not the ones that drive the pattern of mass incarceration so tragically unique to the United States, they impose a legal, bureaucratic, and financial toll, not only on those accused of low-level crimes, but on society more broadly. Since the slowdown, however, courtrooms have been sitting empty, giving perpetually overbooked public defenders some breathing room, not to mention fewer citizens being caught up in the entryway of the criminal justice system.

For better or worse, Bratton has announced that the NYPD’s enforcement patterns should return back to normal very soon, though he cautions that the winter months usually dampens police activity. But even if broken windows resumes with gusto and “quality of life” offenses are once again the target of zero tolerance policing, what exactly is to be gained? Perhaps more importantly, will anyone but the courts and accused know that anything changed?

Michael Sierra-Arevalo is a doctoral student in the Yale department of sociology, and an affiliate fellow at ISPS. His research focuses on police, legitimacy, and interactions between police and community members.