The Broken Windows Theory led to an era of aggressive policing of petty offenses — which in turn led to increased confrontation between police and civilians.
The theory depends upon the proposition that tolerating bad conduct, however petty, sets social norms, and that bad conduct steadily escalates to meet those norms.
Second, at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.
Let's take this as true for a moment.
If tolerating broken windows leads to more broken windows and escalating crime, what impact does tolerating police misconduct have?
Under the Broken Windows Theory, what impact could it have but to signal to all police that scorn for rights, unjustified violence, and discrimination are acceptable norms? Under Broken Windows Theory, what could be the result but more scorn, more violence, and more discrimination?
Apparently we've decided that we won't tolerate broken windows any more. But we haven't found the fortitude to do something about broken people. To put it plainly: just as neighborhood thugs could once break windows with impunity, police officers can generally kill with impunity. They can shoot unarmed men and lie about it. They can roll up and execute a child with a toy as casually as one might in Grand Theft Auto. They can bumble around opening doors with their gun hand and kill bystanders, like a character in a dark farce, with little fear of serious consequences. They can choke you to death for getting a little mouthy about selling loose cigarettes. They can shoot you because they aren't clear on who the bad guy is, and they can shoot you because they're terrible shots, and they can shoot you because they saw something that might be a weapon in your hand — something that can be, frankly, any fucking thing at all, including nothing.
What are we doing about this? Are we pushing back against unwarranted uses of force and deprivations of rights, to prevent them from becoming self-perpetuating norms?
No. We're not pursuing the breakers of windows. If anything, we are permitting the system steadily to entrench their protected right to act that way. We give them second and third and fourth chances. We pretend that they have supernatural powers of crime detection even when science shows that's bullshit. We fight desperately to support their word even when they are proven liars. We sneer that "criminals have too many rights," then give the armed representatives of our government stunning levels of procedural protections when they abuse or even kill us.
Do we really believe in Broken Windows Theory? If we do, how can we be surprised at more casual law enforcement racism, more Americans dead at the hands of police, more matter-of-fact violations of our constitutional rights? We left the windows broken. We helped set the norm. They're just following it.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Gawker, Money, Speech, And Justice - August 18th, 2016
- Lawsplainer: No, Donald Trump's "Second Amendment" Comment Isn't Criminal - August 9th, 2016
- Why Openness About Mental Illness is Worth The Effort And Discomfort - August 9th, 2016
- A Rare Federal Indictment For Online Threats Against Game Industry - July 28th, 2016
- John Hinckley, Jr. and the Rule of Law - July 27th, 2016