The Broken-Windows Myth

The Broken-Windows Myth
Bernard E. Harcourt
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September 11, 2001

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Whatever the outcome of today's mayoral primary, there is already at least one clear winner: the notion that New York City's remarkable drop in crime can be sustained only by continuing the Giuliani administration's crackdown on quality-of-life offenses.

This "broken windows" theory--the idea that tolerating minor infractions like graffiti, aggressive panhandling and turnstile jumping encourages more serious crimes by sending a signal that the community is not in control--has been endorsed in some form by all the candidates. Some have expressed concern that the police under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani have not paid enough attention to civil liberties. But what they have missed is that this style of policing leads to the violations of personal rights that they denounce. And what voters have missed is a real debate on crime and policing, as each candidate jockeys to be the next Rudy Giuliani on crime.

There is little, if any, evidence that the crackdown on squeegee men and graffiti scribblers has played much of a role in reducing crime in New York. Since the early 1990's, most major American cities have seen their crime rates drop significantly, in some cases even further than New York's has. Many of these cities did not undertake anything like New York's crackdown on small-time offenses.

A 1999 study of the 17 largest cities compared each city's most recent drop in homicides. New York's rate of decline was the fifth-largest, behind those of San Diego, Washington, St. Louis and Houston.

San Diego, seated along a major drug smuggling corridor close to the Mexican border, is particularly interesting. In the late 1980's, its police department began adopting a very different style--a problem-solving, community-oriented approach. While recording impressive drops in crime between 1993 and 1996, the city also posted a 15 percent drop in arrests and an 8 percent decline in complaints of police misconduct.

Criminologists say a number of other factors have contributed to declining crime rates in New York--among them, the sharp increase in the police force. Former Mayor David Dinkins hired more than 2,000 new police officers, and Mr. Giuliani hired another 4,000. From 1991 to 1998 the force grew by almost a quarter, giving New York the highest ratio of officers per civilian of the nation's large cities.

A fall in the crack cocaine trade, a strong economy, new computerized police tracking systems, more prisoners and an aging population have also contributed to lower crime rates.

The best social-scientific evidence has shown that a neighborhood's graffiti, litter or public drunks do not necessarily point to a serious crime problem. The research suggests that rather than leading to serious crime, disorder--like crime--is caused by conditions like poverty and a lack of trust between neighbors.

The most rigorous research to date, a 1999 study by Robert Sampson of the University of Chicago and Stephen Raudenbush of the University of Michigan, concludes that "the current fascination in policy circles on cleaning up disorder through law enforcement techniques appears simplistic and largely misplaced, at least in terms of directly fighting crime."

Whatever effect the quality-of-life campaign has had on serious crime in New York is, in all likelihood, not a result of fixing broken windows or cleaning the city of squeegee men. It is because of the increased surveillance afforded by Giuliani-style policing. The broken-windows policy has made possible a 66 percent jump in misdemeanor arrests from 1993 to 1998 and sharp increases in stop-and-frisks that allow more searches for guns, more checks for outstanding warrants and more fingerprint collection.

This enhanced surveillance has come with a big price tag: a 37 percent increase in complaints of police misconduct from 1993 to 1999, significant racial disparities in enforcement, illegal strip searches and many traumatic encounters--some of them deadly--for ordinary citizens. It has also aggravated racial divisions.

So do we need a broken-windows type of policing? Not for combating serious crime. This approach to law enforcement diminishes trust between the police and the community, violates basic rights and scapegoats the homeless and other people we deem disorderly. Clearly, there still needs to be a mayoral debate on whether New York City wants to bear that cost.

Bernard E. Harcourt is a professor of law at the University of Arizona and the author of "Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

Faculty: 
Bernard E. Harcourt