Why Broken Windows still works

One of the major claims underpinning current protests and arguments that police officers are “too tough” on criminals – invariably translated into “minorities” without apparent irony – is that the Broken Windows theory of law enforcement is a problem rather than a solution. The concept, originally developed in the early 1980’s, gained national prominence in New York City during the 90s when the crime rate plummeted by more than fifty percent by the end of that decade. Still, regardless of the data supporting it, coalitions have popped up seeking to end the practice. That’s a mystery to many observers, since it’s been so successful, and an excellent recent example is provided by the editorial board at the New York Post.

Good thing cops weren’t listening to Melissa Mark-Viverito when they arrested Damien Brunson for jumping a Brooklyn subway turnstile. The City Council speaker is a big critic of the Broken Windows strategy that helped bring crime in New York down to record lows. She’d rather police treat so-called minor crimes, like evading a subway fare, with a summons or a desk-appearance ticket.

But Brunson’s recent arrest demonstrates just why Broken Windows works — and why it’s still needed.

Cops on patrol nabbed Brunson, 32, after he jumped a turnstile at the High Street IND station. He blamed a MetroCard that wasn’t working, but the officers didn’t just write a ticket, as the speaker would have them do. Good thing: They found that Brunson was carrying quantities of crack and marijuana, along with a loaded Smith & Wesson .38.

Then they ran his priors — and found seven previous arrests. That’s when the feds stepped in; they’re now prosecuting him on drug and gun-possession charges that could land him behind bars for 10 years.

I’ll grant that Brunson’s arrest is a perfectly fine example of how the theory works in the case of one specific criminal, but running that one up the flagpole risks losing sight of the larger theory which has been put into play. The overarching goal of Broken Windows isn’t just the hope that by capturing and prosecuting “small” crimes you will occasionally drag a bigger fish in with the net. It’s about creating a civil, ordered atmosphere where residents can feel confident that the rule of law is being observed and that they will be protected if they choose to live a law abiding life. If the police won’t actively and aggressively pursue the punk who snatches a woman’s purse on the sidewalk, why should she feel confident that anyone will be there to protect her if a more violent thug drags her into a dark alley? If you want a neighborhood to prosper and grow, anyone opening a business should be able to feel secure that miscreants won’t be allowed to just casually smash their windows or spray graffiti on their door. If not, they should rightly doubt that the cops will do much to help them when somebody comes in with a gun to rob the joint.

There is also the question of what basis people are using to denigrate this idea. Christina Sterbenz at Business Insider attempted to make the argument that Broken Windows doesn’t work just this past winter. Unfortunately, no matter how closely you read that editorial there seems to be something missing. The author correctly notes the stunning drop in violent crime after these policies were put in place, but the only argument she seems to make is that it must have been a coincidence and Broken Windows wasn’t actually the reason. But if that’s the case, then what was the reason? We are never told.

Broken Windows is designed to do a lot more than just catch Damien Brunson jumping a turnstile with a loaded gun and some crack. It’s about reestablishing a sense of normalcy in high crime neighborhoods and a return to safety and order as the rule rather than the exception. Residents should have a lot more respect for the police if they know they can take their children for a walk to the ice cream parlor without having to pass five guys smoking crack on the sidewalk. If they don’t have that assurance then there’s no point in leaving your house because those same crack addicts might be doing something a lot worse when they run out of money for their next fix. Broken Windows, when properly implemented, isn’t really about catching individual criminals. It’s about creating an environment where crime is considered unacceptable by the community at large and enlisting citizens as supporters of law and order rather than adversaries of the cops.