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How did we get here?

Broken Windows

A Collaboration between UNIS Human Rights Project & Proof: Media for Social Justice

Broken windows policing is closely associated with the pattern of mass incarceration in the United States. This model of policing was first put forth by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson in an essay titled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” which appeared in the Atlantic in 1982. They argued that cracking down on minor offenses in urban environments would decrease rates of violent crime by creating a sense of order and authority. An excerpt from the essay reads:

"A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers ..."

At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly.

While their theory was unproven, it changed policing in subsequent decades. Throughout the U.S., arrests for minor offenses, increased -- for example, from 1980 to 2013, the misdemeanor arrest rate in New York City jumped by 190.5%. The idea of “fixing broken windows” took the form of arresting hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers for minor violations such as fare evasion or panhandling. In 2015, the highest category of NYPD arrests was for fare evasion: there were over 29,000 cases with 92% involving people of color

For years, the most prominent form of broken windows policing in NYC was the practice of stop, question and frisk, which allowed police officers to stop, interrogate, and do a full-body search for contraband on anyone they deemed to be suspicious. Most of this activity took place in the city’s poorer, more segregated communities of color, with young Black and Hispanic men being subjected to a hugely disproportionate number of stops. In 2011, a year with an alarmingly high number of stop and frisks in NYC, around 685,000, nearly 85% of stops were of Blacks or Hispanics, who made up about 23 percent and 29 percent of the city’s population respectively. Whites, who made up 33% of the city’s population, accounted for 9% of stops.

While the former New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton argued that the NYPD “targets behavior, not communities of color,” critics of broken windows policing argue that it leads to racial discrimination and profiling. According to the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), broken windows policing punishes “low-income New Yorkers of color for engaging in petty infractions that have been virtually decriminalized in well-off white communities.” Of the 20,000 arrests for sale or possession of marijuana in NYC in 2015, over 92.5% involved people of color, despite several studies that show that whites sell and use drugs in equal proportions to other races.

There are parts of the country where the level of disorder would provide “the material for dozens of articles on the pathologies of poverty that hold back poor people of color” yet where the behavior of residents is not targeted by broken windows policing, writes journalist Chris Hayes in Colony in a Nation. Referring to the campuses of elite 4-year colleges and universities, he describes places where people sleep all day, engage in loud frequent relationship dramas while having numerous sexual partners, get into drunken arguments and brawls and consume ungodly amounts of controlled substances. 

Defenders of broken windows policing, including former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani and President Clinton, argue that it is the main reason for the drop in crime. But it is not clear if this is the reason. Critics argue that studies have revealed no definitive connection between decreasing crime rates and increasing broken windows policing. A 2016 report by the Investigation Office of the Inspector General for the New York City Police Department, which analyzed NYPD summons and arrest data from 2010 to 2015, “found no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime.” Crime rates also began declining before Giuliani became mayor and Bratton became police commissioner. 

As far as the policy of stop and frisk is concerned, only 3% of 2.4 million stops resulted in convictions in NYC. After a federal judge ruled in 2013 that the NYPD’s racially imbalanced use of stop, question and frisk was unconstitutional and the number of stops declined, crime and murder rates in the city also continued to decline. Crime is at a record low in NYC. In 2017, the city had fewer than 300 homicides, the lowest in decades.

How ‘Broken Windows’ Policing Harms People of Color

Test your knowledge.

Chapter 05 — Question 01

In 2011, what was the number of stop and frisks in NYC?

Correct! Wrong!

In 2011, there were around 685,000 stop and frisks in New York City. Almost 85% of the stops were of Blacks or Hispanics, who made up 23% and 29% of the city’s population respectively.

Chapter 05 — Question 01

Robert Gangi


In this country, we have ‘equal justice for all’ except if you’re a poor person, or except if you’re a Black or Latino person. From 2008 to 2011, the average annual summonses for a bike on the sidewalk in Park Slope, which is a white community, was 8. In Bedford Stuyvesant, it was 2,050. They target people of color and and say that they’re doing things to build trust between the cops and the community. It insults our intelligence. You can have systems that bring out the bad in people and you can have systems that bring out the good in people. Prisons will bring out the bad in people. Broken windows policing will bring out the bad in people.

Continue to

Chapter Six

Guilty of Being Poor