In recent weeks, the public debate in New York City over “broken windows” has become almost deafening. According to the New York Times and the Nation, the commitment of the New York Police Department (NYPD) to low-level law enforcement is a broken policy that has “exacerbated discrimination, not improved safety (Nation).”
Opinion writers at the City Journal and the New York Daily News have pushed back. The Journal called broken windows “a moral imperative;” while, according to The News, it is a “proven policy that is helping save lives.”
So where does the truth lie? As is often the case, the media attention has brought more heat than light to this issue, creating an either/or dynamic that essentially forces public officials and scholars to choose sides. If you listen to the most outspoken advocates, broken windows is either the thin blue line separating New York City from the chaos and disorder of the 1980s, or an instrument of institutional racism designed to oppress low-income and minority residents.
Instead of focusing on whether the NYPD should abolish broken windows policing, it might be more productive to ask: how can our city maintain public order without unnecessarily exposing thousands of New Yorkers to criminal convictions and jail time?
Or, to put it another way, is it possible to get the positive benefits of broken windows without the negative consequences?
The first answer to this dilemma is that there are many ways to promote public order other than making arrests. One option is to focus on physical space rather than individual miscreants. There is a growing body of research that suggests, just as George Kelling and James Q. Wilson theorized, that improving the physical environment—cleaning up abandoned lots, enhancing lighting, taking care of public parks—can help deter local crime. And criminologist David Weisburd has documented that place-based prevention efforts don’t result in widespread displacement; to the contrary, targeting local hot spots helps reduce disorder in neighboring areas as well.
An emphasis on improving physical conditions should be married with a commitment to encouraging positive uses of public spaces. Since Jane Jacobs wrote The Life and Death of Great American Cities, urban planners have understood the value of “eyes on the street.” By encouraging our neighbors and merchants to keep track of what is happening on the sidewalks and subways, we can help deter misbehavior.
Many cities have sought to build on this insight by engaging local residents in volunteer programs, urban gardening projects, and public arts initiatives in spaces that were formerly devoted to open-air drug markets and other illegal activities. In some places, like East Palo Alto, Ca., police officers have played a leading role, getting local residents out of their homes for power walking, yoga and Zumba dancing. This isn’t window dressing and these aren’t just feel-good projects: these are important crime-fighting strategies.
While physical improvements and community engagement can go a long way towards cleaning up crime-plagued neighborhoods, there will always be a role for law enforcement in addressing quality-of-life crime. We don’t want to encourage police to look the other way when they have probable cause to suspect a minor offense has been committed.
But this does not necessarily mean that every time a police officer stops someone the end result should be a court case and a jail sentence. To the contrary, we should be creating off-ramps at each key point of decision-making in the process—at the moment of arrest, charging, and sentencing—so that the criminal justice system does not use incarceration as a default setting. (Indeed, many types of unruly behavior can be dealt with by police without an arrest at all.)
Police, prosecutors, probation officers, and judges should be actively looking for opportunities to divert those apprehended for minor offenses to community service projects and short-term social service interventions in lieu of traditional case processing and conventional sentencing options. There is ample evidence that alternative approaches can not only change the behavior of offenders but help restore public trust in justice so long as criminal justice officials take pains to treat defendants with dignity and respect.
Granted, talking about alternative sentencing, diversion schemes and community clean-up efforts isn’t as exciting as railing against injustice or painting nightmare scenarios of a dystopian New York City. But it just might help those of us who care about addressing both disorder and disproportionate minority involvement to forge a better criminal justice system.
Greg Berman is the director of the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership that seeks to reform the justice system through alternatives to incarceration and other projects. He welcomes comments from readers.