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New Study: “Broken Windows” Policing May Not Be as Effective as Thought

by Christopher Zoukis

A study published in the scholarly journal Nature Human Behavior has established a connection between proactive policing and crime. But it is not the connection that proponents of proactive policing may have expected. The authors of the study found that temporary cessation of proactive policing actually led to a decline in major crimes reported.

According to the study, proactive policing involves “systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations.” This method of policing, also known as “broken windows,” places a premium on fighting smaller crimes. The idea is that doing so deters more serious crimes by signaling that the area is being monitored and that criminal activity will not be tolerated.

“[R]ather than wait for citizens to report criminal conduct,” explained the authors, “law enforcement…proactively patrol communities, maintaining order through systematic and aggressive low-level policing.”

New York City has embraced the concept of proactive policing for decades. Former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton introduced the concept in the 1990s, and it appeared to be highly successful. Indeed, there was a “[c]orrespondence between the introduction of proactive policing in New York and the city’s historic drop in major crime” that seemed to provide evidence that proactive policing worked. As such, “cities across the globe accepted the NYPD’s protocols and practices.”

But not all researchers are convinced that proactive policing is as effective as advertised. Indeed, some worry that this type of police activity may be detrimental to many citizens and communities.

“A serious concern is that proactive policing diverts finite resources and attention away from investigative units, including detectives working to track down serial offenders and break up criminal networks,” the authors noted. “Proactive policing also disrupts communal life, which can drain social control of group-level violence. Citizens are arrested, unauthorized markets are disrupted, and people lose their jobs, all of which create more localized stress on individuals already living on the edge. Such strains are imposed directly through proactive policing, and thus are independent from subsequent judgments of guilt or innocence.”

It is arguable that the detriment to the community and the “legal cynicism” that result from proactive policing are acceptable losses, when the result is a lower rate of major crimes. A major premise of proactive policing is that “increasing police stops, criminal summonses and low-level arrests” will prevent major crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand theft auto.

But what if proactive policing fails to achieve a decrease in major crime?

The authors of the study set out to determine how proactive policing, or the lack thereof, affects crime. Through a stroke of pure luck, the researchers were able to obtain data from a period during which the NYPD temporarily halted proactive policing in response to public protests over the death of Eric Garner. The NYPD coordinated a “work to rule” strike, in which all proactive measures were suspended, as a “symbolic show of strength to demonstrate the city’s dependence on the NYPD.”

Looking at the data, the authors found that reports of major crimes actually fell while proactive policing was suspended. This is the exact opposite conclusion that proponents of proactive policing would have expected.

“Contradicting arguments that systematically decreasing proactive policing should correspond to increased crime (that is, the Ferguson effect),” wrote the authors, “our results reveal that civilian complaints of major crimes declined by approximately 3-6% during the slowdown.”

During the slowdown period, citizens reported 43 fewer felony assaults, 40 fewer burglaries, and 40 fewer acts of grand larceny per week. In the aggregate, including the 14 weeks following the slowdown, citizens made 2,100 fewer major crime complaints.

The authors suggest that the data reveal a need to take a second look at proactive policing. While not declaring “broken windows” fatally flawed, the authors do note that “certain policing tactics may inadvertently contribute to serious criminal activity.” Inadvertent or not, if proactive policing actually increases crime or has no appreciable effect, assumptions about its value in the community need to be reconsidered.

“Our results imply not only that these tactics fail at their stated objective of reducing major legal violations, but also that the initial deployment of proactive policing can inspire additional crimes that later provide justification for further increasing police stops, summonses and so on,” the authors wrote.

The study also highlights an inherent problem with the use of proactive policing—it essentially encourages racial and socioeconomic profiling. When engaging in proactive tactics, “[p]olice officers target their efforts at areas where crime is anticipated and/or where they expect enforcement will be most effective.” As such, “[i]t is well established that proactive policing is deployed disproportionately across communities, and that areas with high concentrations of poverty and people of colour are more likely to be targeted.”

David Weisburd of George Mason University told the L.A. Times that the results of the study should not be “generalized across the broad array of proactive policing strategies” because the study only looked at the NYPD’s approach in New York City. But he noted that the results of the study have “strong weight” and should be followed up with efforts to obtain “experimental evidence of the impacts of proactivity at the jurisdictional level.”

“The first law of treatment is ‘do no harm,’” Weisburd wrote. “[The authors] suggest that generalized enforcement of low-level offenses does just that. We have a moral imperative to carry out well-designed experimental studies that can give us unambiguous answers to this important policy question.” 



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