The “Broken Windows” theory of policing has been around for a while now, but as the American political mainstream has begun to pay greater attention to the crisis of mass incarceration and the ways American law enforcement still looks warily at people of color, what was once a scholarly dispute has exploded into a vicious quarrel. As is often the case when it comes to the public discourse on issues of race, the argument has often resulted in more heat than light, veering toward dueling assertions of identity and away from a sober-minded evaluation of the available facts. A conversation that should be about what’s effective and constitutional, in other words, has too often devolved into a pseudo-debate over whether it’s “pigs” or “thugs” who are capital-b Bad.
With that in mind, you’d hope a new report on NYPD practices, published on Tuesday by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, would be welcomed by all. And while I expect Broken Windows critics to appreciate the data, which takes a close look at the racial breakdown of NYPD arrests for minor offenses since 1980, I’m considerably less optimistic that the practice’s defenders will respond in kind. To be fair, they’ll have a good reason: While the report doesn’t answer the question of whether it's to thank for the decrease in crime New York’s experienced over the last 30 years, it does provide compelling evidence regarding the other major Broken Windows question; namely, whether its enforcement during that same timeframe has been racist. The answer is yes.
As you’d expect from John Jay, a nonpartisan branch of the state’s CUNY system, the report is lengthy, detailed and nuanced. The definitive conclusion of racism is not the authors’, but my own. Still, the figures revealed here are damning. As the Huffington Post’s Saki Knafo notes in his writeup, the report finds that, since 1980, “the percentage of New Yorkers arrested for misdemeanors has tripled” and that this huge increase has disproportionately fallen on the city’s communities of color. Since 1990, Knafo writes, “[t]he number of blacks arrested for misdemeanors nearly doubled.” And for Latinos, the numbers are even more dramatic; 30,885 were arrested for petty crimes in 1990, while 78,733 experienced the same fate in 2013.
White people, on the other hand, had an easier go of it. Back in 1990, a shade less than 22,000 were nabbed for small stuff like jumping a subway turnstile or carrying with them a small amount of pot. By 2013, that figure was 28,996 — a relatively minor bump. Perhaps aware that a picture is worth a thousand words (while a wonky chart is worth even more) the authors provided this line graph, which helps make the racial enforcement that leads to these numbers a bit more visceral:
Now, these figures put defenders of Broken Windows in a tough spot. In similar situations, like during the debate over stop-and-frisk (which should be seen as an element of the broader Broken Windows approach, and which has been overwhelmingly directed toward’s the city’s people of color), they pointed out that it’s rather inevitable that neighborhoods ridden with crime, which tend to be disproportionately non-white, will see stop-and-frisk rates that are higher for minorities than whites. And I suppose these folks might be inclined to keep on that track and argue that black and latino people are more likely to jump a turnstile or smoke a joint. But because the implications and associations that argument inspires are more than a little troublesome nowadays (at least in polite society), that’s not a strategy most Broken Windows fans want to take.
Which is why, inevitably, the debate over Broken Windows comes down to efficacy, even if, as the judge who struck down stop-and-frisk last year noted, the rights established in the Constitution quite purposefully bar governments from enacting policy on exclusively utilitarian grounds. With it getting harder and harder to deny that the era of Broken Windows in New York has, in practice, been characterized by officers disproportionately targeting people of color, the only available option for those not interested in arguing that people of color are inherently more likely to be criminals — especially now that the “culture” argument is more and more being recognized as a euphemistic canard — is to say that, for all its problems, Broken Windows works.
That, too, is becoming an increasingly thin reed for proponents of Broken Windows to hang onto. But as the John Jay report shows, it’s starting to look like that’s all they’ve got.