Any theory is just a theory. It can never be fully proven, but it can always be debunked. The Broken Windows Theory has been used to justify aggressive policing of identified ‘unsafe‘ areas. Broken Windows policing violates rights, moral ground, and creates a perception of criminality amongst certain communities. Introduced in 1982, the criminological theory is rooted in the belief that people view disorder as a breeding ground for crime. The example often used (and the theory’s namesake) is a broken window in a building or a car, more damage to the car or building would encourage several undesirable actions including, vandalism, loitering, and squatting. Ultimately, the theory alludes that police can make an area, or an entire city, safer by focusing on smaller crimes that may build up to larger acts of crime.
The theory has been used as justification for the infamous Stop and Frisk policy. Though rules unconstitutional by New York in 2013, the effects of Stop and Frisk continue to manifest, disproportionately influencing many outside of its practicing environment. Stop and Frisk creates the perception that specific communities need policing. I live in New York and it easy to distinguish when I am walking in safe/unsafe areas. However, my experience has less to do with the people who live there. If the infrastructure is depleting, if the air feels thicker, if there is trash in the streets, if it is crowded (outside of the norm), I begin to feel unsafe.
The Broken Windows Theory creates ground for police officers, or neighborhood watch patrollers, to place targets on people who fit into the Stop and Frisk profile. The New York Times called it “a generalized method of harassing law-abiding citizens.” Stop and Frisk wastes time and resources, and results in harmful social consequences that are long-lasting. Evidence shows that people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, youth, the homeless are often targets of Stop and Frisk. Further, studies have also shown this type of policing often results in sexual, physical, and verbal abuse by the police.
Former Mayor Bloomberg was responsible for authorizing Stop and Frisk and similar policies under the guise of the Broken Windows Theory. Several organizations, including Communities United for Police Reform(CPR) and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), successfully protested such practices. CPR constantly takes action against the discriminatory acts of the New York Police Department (NYPD) through community and political engagement. They state, “Many stops, searches, summons and arrests are driven by the pressure on officers to hit quotas and stop a certain number of people and make a certain number of arrests. The police department needs to get rid of the system that turns members of our community into a way to hit quota targets.” The NYCLU created the Stop and Frisk app intended for the use of people who are witnessing an incident to empower community members and to hold the police accountable.
I would argue that the theory is not the most harmful aspect. Rather, it is the implemented practices that disproportionately target individuals that is the most harmful. The theory did not justify the aggressive policing of profiling people, which is the reality in many low-income neighborhoods of major cities. There is a common misconception that horrible people live in unsafe areas. This is not the case. There are people who work in low-income neighborhoods, take care of their children, participate politically, and mold the character of their neighborhoods through positive engagement. Stop and Frisk is still being used in places like Washington D.C. Though there have been some changes to the practice, these reforms are not enough. We need to protect ourselves from unconstitutional practices that target marginalized communities!
By Kelsey Evans