Return to the “Broken Windows Theory” - A Solution for New York

As a 34-year law enforcement veteran, it was appalling to see two New York Police Department officers doused with buckets of water during a warrant arrest in Brooklyn. The fact that a crowd surrounded them jeering, and then bounced an empty bucket off the head of one of the officers, demonstrated how low conditions have become between the police and the public. Even more concerning was to witness the deterioration in clarity among the rank and file as to an appropriate response to the assault on their persons, and the damage caused to their organization by such inaction.

During the 1990’s, when lawlessness had taken a foothold in the “Big Apple,” Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani initiated policies first introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Their “Broken Windows Theory” was designed to target minor crimes such as vandalism, public consumption of alcoholic beverages, and graffiti. Such policies resulted in statistically significant reductions in crime. These findings were analyzed as having established an environment characterized as orderly, and lawful, with a more visible sense of security. A corollary tactic attributed to similar success was the implementation of the “stop-and-frisk,” policy based upon reasonable suspicion.

These policies are not without critics, primarily concerned with an erosion of individual rights. Bratton’s response has been to stress that the critical component before embarking upon “Broken Windows” policing was “careful training, guidelines, and supervision.” Just as important as the tactics themselves is the buy-in by the political entities. Their continual support both financially and through pronouncements of confidence in those “in-the-trenches” who are responsible for the daily enforcement of these minor criminal statutes is essential.

Former Los Angeles Deputy Chief and renowned law enforcement tactician, Michael Hillmann, has lectured extensively on appropriate responses in crowd control situations. It has been his contention that when an object capable of injury flies toward law enforcement officers performing official duties, a lack of an immediate response results in an escalation of lawlessness. Whether it be uniformed personnel or plainclothes forces behind the scenes, a quick and effective arrest of the perpetrator(s) is essential in preventing further acts of criminality, and can provide a chilling effect on those contemplating similar actions.

Of great significance in contributing to successful outcomes is the fact that today’s law enforcement officer is frequently equipped with a body mounted camera. The ability of police officials to review, and unfound complaints of alleged misconduct has been improved exponentially. The swift dissemination to media sources of exonerating video is vital to continued public support as well as the enhancement of community relations.

Clearly, NYPD needs to embark upon a dramatic change in direction before more names are added to the list of officers killed in the line of duty, resulting from further erosion of respect for the uniform they so proudly wear. A short visit to the past, when the “Broken Windows Theory” was deployed, now coupled with today’s video technology, would provide a solution to this dangerous trend affecting this city and its officers. Judging from the comments on social media, New York’s residents, workforce, and fellow citizens are repulsed by the lawlessness and lack of security on display. The only question that remains is whether their electorate is supportive of leaders willing to implement and support proven tactics to remedy this deteriorating situation.


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