How 'broken window' policing continues to shatter black lives

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In March of 1982, two social scientists named James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, joined together to write an article for The Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety”. In the article, these two men argued that when minor signs of social disarray were left alone, not only would that community beget more disorder, but it will eventually lead to increased levels of chaos and criminality. The seminal example they used was proffering how broken windows on a building would tempt vandals into breaking more windows, and eventually would lead to them breaking into the building and even starting fires. Whether you personally agree with that theory or not, the one irrefutable fact about their essay is that it forever altered criminal policy in America, especially in New York City.

In 1985, Kelling was hired as a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority and presided over the city’s crackdown of graffiti in the subway. In 1990, this strict and unforgiving approach was embraced by the head of the New York City Transit Police – a man named William Bratton. Using Kelling’s model as his inspiration, Bratton spearheaded a zero-tolerance campaign on infractions such as fare-dodging. When Bratton was hired as police commissioner by mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1993, he brought his style of policing with him and applied it city wide to crimes such as public urination, panhandling and unsolicited squeegee car cleaning. He also introduced a comprehensive automated tracking system called Compstat which was used to monitor the time, type and location of individual crimes. Backed with stats and a focus on policing broken windows, the era of increased summons was officially underway.

When Operation Impact, an initiative to flood high-crime neighborhoods with mostly rookie officers, was launched in 2003, a huge bump in summons took off. In 2005, the program reached its peak when 648,638 summons were issued in one year. But, when you analyze the neighbourhoods which were considered high crime, there was a stark overrepresentation of areas populated mostly by black and brown faces. Black and Latino New Yorkers were being targeted by the NYPD at a rate that far exceeded their white neighbors. In fact, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, roughly 81% of the 7.3 million people hit with violations between 2001 and 2013 were black and Hispanic. So, earlier this week, when news broke that NYPD officers and law makers have allegedly issued 850,000 bogus summonses and have attempted to cover it up by destroying evidence, we shouldn’t just view this as a simple inconvenience to many New Yorkers, but more so as the outright extortion of African-Americans by the NYPD.

That last sentence may make some people uneasy, and years ago may have been viewed as race-baiting, but now recent facts that proven that not only is this a very probable and prejudicial attack, but it’s also not limited to New York. In March of this year, the Department of Justice released a report that explicitly stated that the police force in Ferguson, Missouri deliberately targeted and ticketed black residents to maximize revenue for the city. The DOJ report not only states that black Americans are disproportionately targeted and 68% less likely to have their cases thrown out in court. Blacks are 50% more likely to have their citation lead to an arrest warrant and accounted for 92% of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued. Even more disgusting and troubling is that when violence occurred against African-Americans, 90% of the time they were against black folks. When looking at those numbers and understanding the nation-wide issue the United States has with race and policing, you would have to be naive as hell to believe that those inequalities exist simply in Ferguson.

Although half of the summons in New York City are thrown out, there is irreparable harm being done to black New Yorkers who are targeted and criminalized by programs like stop and frisk which fall under the rubric of broken windows policing. If what is being alleged is true, African-Americans are being extorted as a means of financial revenue to the city while also helping officers and precincts accomplish their CompStat targets. It’s the sort of over policing of minor crimes leads to black men being imprisoned for petty crimes such as selling loose cigarettes on the street, which results in overzealous officers placing black men in illegal choke holds while they audibly gasp, “I can’t breathe…” before they’re suffocated by the very same men who were tasked with protecting them. There is no broken window so important that it’s worth eroding the trust people of color have in their own police force.

Lincoln Anthony Blades blogs daily on his site He’s an author of the book “You’re Not A Victim, You’re A Volunteer.” He can be reached via Twitter@lincolnablades and on Facebook at Lincoln Anthony Blades.