Broken Windows in Practice

Part 4 of 5: Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space.

Producing Criminals

New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani’s 1993 appointment of Bill Bratton to the position of Police Commissioner marked the beginning of the quality-of-life initiative, a form of policing explicitly grounded in the broken windows theory. Bratton had previously served as the head of the New York City Transit Police from 1990 to 1992 before leaving to Boston for a brief stint as Police Commissioner there. As the head of the Transit Police, Bratton focused his efforts on ‘retaking’ the city’s famed subway system from the homeless and the fare-beaters, lobbying the city for new semi-automatic hand guns in order to “make police work more interesting.”1 Police officers were asked to ride the trains, frequent tunnels at all hours of the day and night, and attend early morning strategy sharing meetings.1 This decentralization of the transit police was intended to reinvigorate officers to crackdown on misdemeanors and encourage them to identify the presumed linkages between small-time violations and felony crimes. Bratton continued this practice throughout his tenure as police commissioner, focusing on reducing crime rates by any means necessary. This strategy entailed “giving the law enforcement authorities carte blanche to hunt out petty crime and to drive the homeless and the derelict back into the shadows of dispossessed neighborhoods.”2 Though Giuliani still encouraged officers to act within the means of the law,3 zero-tolerance policing fundamentally deregulates judicial standards by giving police the authority to protect the ‘sanctity of public space’3 from the ‘disorderly’ and corrosive behavior of the urban poor with legal impunity.

While Bratton’s decentralization of the police force was coupled with integration of computerized programs such as COMPSTAT to geographically demarcate particularly disorderly areas and flood them with officers, it is critical to note that the broken windows theory is not premised on a theoretically neutral understanding of criminality. As Bernard Harcourt explains, the entire theory is premised on the notion that “disorder operates on honest people and on the disorderly in different ways. Neighborhood disorder influences honest people to move out of the neighborhood or to lock themselves in their homes… But neighborhood disorder influences the disorderly—and especially criminals—to move into the neighborhood to commit crimes.”4 Likewise, 1994’s Police Report No. 5, characterized by the NYPD as the “linchpin of efforts now being undertaken… to reduce crime and fear in the city,”5 repeatedly cites the racist 1965 Moynihan Report that blamed poverty on deep-rooted ‘ghetto culture.’ Defining an ideal society as a “society of civility,” Bratton referred the now-debunked6 study by sociologist Wesley Skogan as proof that “Aggressive panhandling, squeegee cleaners, street prostitution, ‘boombox cars,’ public drunkenness, reckless bicyclists, and graffiti have added to the sense that the entire public environment is a threatening place.”7

In considering Giuliani’s approach to attracting capital investment to the city, then, the broken windows theory would seem a natural fit for the necessary neighborhood ‘cleanup’ involved. It is no surprise that Charles Murray, one of the theory’s core proponents, is perhaps most famous for his eugenics-based study, The Bell Curve (a veritable companion to Losing Ground). In this study, Murray argues that “IQ determines not only who attends college and who succeeds on campus but also who becomes an unemployed drifter or an enterprising millionaire, who lives within the sacraments of marriage rather than in unwed cohabitation… whether a mother raises her children properly or neglects them, and who fulfills their civic duties conscientiously.”8 As a corollary, those with lower IQs are more likely to commit crimes. Rather than stemming from material conditions, crime is intrinsically attached to mental deficiency and moral pathology. Such a narrative is founded on a normative construction middle-class whiteness that precludes any relationship between the routinized practices of wealthy ‘disorder’ (insider trading, misrepresenting loans, or non-compliance with environmental standards, for example) and police brutality.9 Activities such as these, in comparison to misdemeanor crimes including panhandling or selling marijuana they can be carried out from within an office, on the computer. They are not generally associated with the kind of spatial enclosures heavily policed by the NYPD.

Assessing Broken Windows

Police brutality was never considered an aberration to an otherwise sound method of quality-of-life policing: it was (and continues to be, as the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo so clearly illustrates) a necessary cost in the mandating of aggressive police responses to crime.10 Officers are legally impugned as long as they claim reasonable fear for their leaves and act in self-defense.11 There is nothing ‘accidental’ about accidental killings in the practice of a theoretical paradigm that essentially requires the use of brutal force, because the zero-tolerance strategy relies on the exercising of such tactics in order to enforce neighborhood order. The effect of quality-of-life policing on communities can be easily understood. In 1993, for instance, New York City ranked third (behind Philadelphia and Chicago) in terms of the total number of police officers per 10,000 citizens, with 40.12 By 1998, New York ranked first the number had risen to 53.12 This influx of law enforcement encouraged to act aggressively towards disorderly activity unsurprisingly resulted in higher rates of brutality, as well as individual grievances. In 1996 (when the number of police per 10,000 citizens stood at 50), the number of allegations of police misconduct in New York reached 9,390 while the number of complaints tallied 5,550. These numbers represented respective 68 and 55 percent increases since 1993, the year Giuliani was elected.13

True to its promise, broken windows policing also produced between 40,000 and 85,000 additional misdemeanor arrests between 1994 and 1998,14 and by 1996 nearly 13 percent of Black men in New York were arrested for misdemeanor crimes, up from roughly 10.5 percent in 1994.15 Moreover, the amount of arrests in New York grew 41 percent between 1993 and 1998, with misdemeanor arrests in particular spiking by 71 percent.16 At the same time, the total number of reported offenses declined by 46 percent. This means that by 1997, “the city police were making more arrests than there were offenses reported to them,” while the number of complaints of police brutality rose by 50 percent.16

Despite the disturbing increase of police aggression, it might appear intuitive to attribute the drop in crime during Giuliani’s tenure to the success of the broken windows theory. Closer inspection disproves such an analysis. Between 1994 and 1996, violent crime dropped in the city from a rate of 1.5 percent to 1 percent, continuing the trend of decline since 1990, when such crime was over 2 percent.17 Though the level of violent crime began to decline well before Bratton’s appointment, the police commissioner was quick to congratulate himself on his performance as police commissioner, writing in a 1996 article with George Kelling that “the restoration of assertive policing in 1994 and 1995” had “interacted with community forces to achieve an unprecedented ‘tipping point’ in violent and other forms of crime.”18 Yet the actual evidence for broken windows’ success is dubious at best. Wacquant provides the most effective proofs in this case. First, as depicted above, he notes that violent crime began to decrease three years before Giuliani’s election in 1993 and continued at the same pace afterwards. Second, the diminution of violent crime was just as prevalent in cities that did not adopt quality-of-life policing strategies, including ones such as San Diego that implemented significantly more lax tactics such as community policing. Finally, between 1984 and 1987, former New York City mayor David Dinkins had attempted to implement an aggressive policing policy similar to the quality-of-life initiative, named ‘Operation Pressure Point.’ Operation Pressure Point was marred by a steep increase in violent crime, including homicides. Wacquant attributes this pattern to the booming underground drug economy during these years.19 It is difficult, then, to define a causal relationship between quality-of-life policing and the decrease in crime.

In addition to the factors indicating why quality-of-life policing had no discernible impact on the rate of violent crime, Wacquant offers several suggestions to explain the decrease of violence in the city, all of which are independent of the broken windows theory. First, unparalleled economic growth in the early 1990s marked new employment opportunities for young men who were just able to evade the reach of workfare programs, despite the fact that nearly all of them were severely underpaying positions. Wacquant explains that the job creation associated with the first years of the 1990s contributed to a growing optimism within the Black community regarding the prospect of economic mobility, as growing numbers of Black teens began to enroll in post-secondary education, thus reducing the likelihood of violent crime. Combined with the decline (however insufficient) of unemployment, the direct and indirect impacts of this job creation may attribute for 30 percent of the decrease of crime nationwide. Second, the violence associated with the boom of crack-cocaine in the 1980s began to dwindle as “the retail trade in crack in impoverished neighborhoods gained structure and stability,” thus resulting in less intra-communal violence than before. As crack was subsumed by other drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines, the informal economies providing these substances were transmuted into less competitive and hostile markets, resulting in a drop in the violent crime associated with the trafficking of narcotics. Third, the number of young people between the ages of 18 and 24—the age category always statistically responsible for the highest level of violent crime—decreased during this period. Fourth, Wacquant describes a generational learning effect in which young people born after 1980 were able to escape gang violence after observing the fate of family members, while various grassroots organizations worked to mobilize youths by providing outlets for education and community building. Moreover, the rate of violent crime in the early 1990s was significantly and irregularly higher than historical standards and was thus statistically bound to decrease without any further action being taken. Finally, it is critical to note that especially in New York, the indictment and conviction rates for those arrested for felonies dropped significantly after 1992, indicating that the expansion of and heightened aggression used by the NYPD in making greater numbers of arrests were often premised on faulty evidence.20 This information indicates that the broken windows theory should not be attributed to the decline in violent crime in New York; rather, its implementation further alienated those in economically unstable positions by punishing behavior that did not fit the normativized rubric of middle-class whiteness. It was in tandem with New York City’s workfare programs under Giuliani, then, that the imposition of the quality-of-life policing marked a battle for public space, disciplining those who—under the dual logics of the broken windows theory and workfarism—were ontologically inseparable from the construction of disorder.

Read Part 1, 2, and 3.

Next: Part 5 of 5: “Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space.”

  1. Parenti, Chris. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. New York: Verso, 1999, 73. [] []
  2. Wacquant, Loïc. Prisons of Poverty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 14. []
  3. Smith, Neil. “Which New Urbanism? The Revanchist 90s.” Perspecta, Vol. 30, Settlement Patterns (1999), 100. [] []
  4. Harcourt, Bernard. Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, 17. []
  5. Bill Bratton, Police Report No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York, 1994. []
  6. See Harcourt. []
  7. William J. Bratton, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Police Report No.5, July 6, 1994. []
  8. Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, 13. []
  9. Harcourt, 130. []
  10. Sidney L. Harring and Gerday W. Ray, “Policing a Class Society: New York City in the 1990s,” Social Justice, Vol. 26, No. 2 (76), 25th Anniversary Commemoration (Summer 1999), 68. []
  11. Sidney L. Harring and Gerday W. Ray, 71. []
  12. Harcourt, 96. [] []
  13. Harcourt, 167. []
  14. Harcourt, 2. []
  15. Preeti Chauhan et al., with an Introduction by Jeremy Travis, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “Trends in Misdemeanor Arrest Rates in New York,” New York: New York, October, 2014. []
  16. Wacquant, Loïc. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009, 263. [] []
  17. Chauhan, et al., “Trends in Misdemeanor Arrest Rates in New York.” []
  18. George L. Kelling and William J. Bratton, “Declining Crime Rates: Insiders’ Views of the New York City Story,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1998), 1228. []
  19. Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, 253-54. []
  20. Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, 255-59. []
Jacob Ertel recently graduated from Oberlin College, where he organized with Students for a Free Palestine and studied political economy. Jacob is currently based in New York City and is interested in the BDS movement, anti-gentrification, and internationalism. He has previously been published on Dissident Voice and Cyrano’s Journal. He can be contacted by email at:</a. Read other articles by Jacob.