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April Kelly-Woessner

The riots and looting in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray are an indictment of our method of urban policing. While these were not the first riots triggered by police brutality, they mark a clear turning point. In Baltimore, it is clear that the city’s police force was ill-equipped to deal with the angry, destructive mobs.

Reporters on the scene in Baltimore interviewed citizen bystanders, who attempted to describe what was occurring in their communities. The majority of people interviewed indicated that while the anger was about the death of Freddie Gray, it also wasn’t. Rather, the most recent incident merely ignited a fragile tinderbox of frustration and hostility toward police. One man described Gray’s death as “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” while others reported that Baltimore had merely reached a point where anger had “boiled over.”  Several of the men interviewed indicated that the police often “harassed” or intimidated people who were doing nothing wrong, or that people were arrested for “the littlest things.”

When citizens made similar comments in Ferguson, Missouri, people observed that the police force and city leadership were predominantly white.  Analysts concluded that the black community felt harassed because of racial differences and suggested that if the police force or local officials were more representative of the population, the situation would improve.  Yet, Baltimore is a different story.  With an African-American mayor and police commissioner, it is clear that the tension between police and minority communities is not due to racial insensitivity among city leaders.  Similarly, Baltimore’s police force is more representative of the population, with nearly half of its officers being racial minorities.  This is not to dismiss racism as a factor in Ferguson, but rather to suggest that something different is brewing in Baltimore and it won’t be solved by diversifying a police force or electing African-Americans to higher office.

Rather, the hostility toward police in urban communities is a failure of the “broken windows theory” of policing.  The theory was developed by two criminologists, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, in 1982.  The premise: If a broken window is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows in the building will soon be broken;  one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows bears no consequence.   The theory holds that even minor crimes must be strictly punished or the city descends into criminal chaos.

For many years, broken-windows policing was heralded as a huge success.  It seems that having police walk the street did discourage street crime.  In Kelling’s and Wilson’s article, they describe a scene where a police officer knows the locals in his neighborhood and is friendly with them. Yet his presence provides security and order.  If this were the norm in broken-windows policing, perhaps it would continue to be successful.  However, over time, the theory has led to aggressive policing tactics that isolate police from the community and build distrust.

This distrust is the result of treating people like broken windows, or worse.  Recall that the heart of the theory is the premise that crime is controlled when it is clear that people care.  This means communities should repair broken windows, damaged buildings, and other signs of poverty and blight.  Yet when the signs of poverty are people, this solution violates their basic civil liberties.

In fact, broken-windows policing treats as a criminal anyone who looks as if he or she might cause a problem.  In Kelling’s and Wilson’s own words: “The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager, or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization — namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.”

This is the kind of thinking that leads communities to install spikes under overpasses to prevent homeless people from seeking shelter.  It robs people of basic human dignity, merely because they look poor, young or black.   In other words, broken-windows policing has unintended consequences that have now reached a boiling point, making the tactic more of a liability than an asset.  Fixing a broken window might deter street crime, but treating broken people like they are removable windows leads to mass civil unrest.

April Kelly-Woessner is a professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Elizabethtown College. She also is a correspondent for LNP. Email her at woessnerak@etown.edu