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by Peter Moskos

December 6, 2013

Broken Windows does not equal Zero Tolerance

This article in Slate by Justin Peters is perhaps not the stupidest thing I've ever read on policing. But it is the stupidest thing I've read about Broken Windows since Bratton was announced as the next NYPD commissioner about 20 hours ago.

Peters writes, "Broken-windows strategies and zero-tolerance policing strategies go hand in hand." Well, no. They don't. Bill Bratton is not a defender of Zero Tolerance policing. He never has been. In fact, Broken Windows is the philosophical opposite of Zero Tolerance. Bill Bratton can tell you why this is so. George Kelling can tell you why this is so. Kelling is the guy who coined the phrase and write the "Broken Windows" article (coauthored with James Q. Wilson) in the March, 1982, issue of the Atlantic. (I took a class from Kelling back in the 1990s when I was a graduate student at Harvard.) And I can tell you how. This and why so many seemingly rational people oppose Broken Windows -- often on an ideological level -- is important. And I will tell you this, but not tonight. It's late and I'm going to bed. But I leave you with this:
The equation ... between police order-maintenance activities (“broken windows”) and “zero tolerance” for disorderly behavior raises issues that go beyond semantics. ... It is an equation that I have never made, find worrisome, and have argued against, considering the phrase “zero tolerance” not credible and smacking of zealotry.
--George Kelling "‘Broken Windows’ and Police Discretion." NIJ (1999).


Dana King said...

Thanks. I read peters's article yesterday and was curious to see what you had to say.

Another question comes to mind, given Bratton's appointment and your experience: what's your opinion of CompStat?

PCM said...

CompStat was great. It still is needed. But it also has created the stop-and-frisk mess in NYC.

The police departments need to stop caring about easily "produced" data. What matters is real crime. And public fear of crime. What doesn't matter is reported felony crime (easily juked). Not stops (mostly meaningless and hostile in large amounts). Not arrests. Not response time. Not anything simply because it is easily quantified.

The good news is all it takes is the dept brass to say, "We don't care about the number of stops or arrests. Period." If these measures can't be used by district commanders as proof that they're "doing something," the pressure to produce these stats won't go down the chain of command.

There's a saying (often attributed to Bloomberg) that "if you can't count it, it doesn't count." That's more a self-fulfilling prophesy than a truism. Some things are very hard to count: fear of crime and what it means to be a good police officer are just two of the most important that come to mind. And they certainly count.