On Tuesday, Mayor Silva held a press conference promoting his crime-fighting initiative, Stockton Safe Streets. The plan includes an increase in the sales tax to fund 100 new police officers, among other things. Aside from the argument of whether or not this proposal would complicate Stockton’s bankruptcy proceedings, or if it aligns with the city’s Marshall Plan, I was struck by the Mayor’s choice to bring in William Bratton as a consultant.
In an interview with Mike Fitzgerald, the former police commissioner of New York and Los Angeles explains how local law enforcement should focus on misdemeanors. Instead of simply responding to calls, officers should be actively pursuing smaller crimes, which together eventually lead to more serious ones. This theory is known as the Broken Windows theory, which Bratton credits for his success. Bratton’s track record is impressive, and police department’s around the country routinely seek out his expertise on how to fight crime in their own cities. However, a close inspection of Bratton’s work suggests that some of his strategies are not as effective as he claims, and Stockton should examine all of the facts to determine whether or not a Broken Windows approach to crime could reduce overall violent crime in Stockton.
First, a primer on the Broken Windows theory, which was originally developed in the 80s. This theory presumes that crime increases as neighborhood conditions deteriorate. In other words, the more broken windows, graffiti, and vandalism in a neighborhood, the higher the crime rate goes. Criminals are emboldened by these areas as the appearance of neglect indicates that laws are loosely enforced. For example, under the Broken Windows theory, if graffiti appears on a wall, its presence must indicate a lack of concern for that building, attracting more graffiti. Eventually, these smaller crimes burgeon into more serious ones. Therefore, if resources are focused on preventing minor offenses– loitering, panhandling, vandalism, etc– more serious crimes will be undercut.
Bratton was brought to New York City by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the early 1990s and quickly implemented aggressive crime fighting tactics including a dramatic increase in police officers to carry out the Broken Windows strategy. Many credit Bratton’s approach for the city’s drastic turnaround. And indeed, New York City experienced a 40% drop in crime overall in Bratton’s first three years. These statistics are indisputable as New York is safer now than it has ever been. However, research suggests that the Broken Windows strategy had little to do with the city’s safety renaissance.
A recent study published by Justice Quarterly suggests that the city’s crime rate was already falling before Bratton implemented his policies, and concludes that the Broken Windows theory was not the reason for New York’s decreasing crime. The study– the most robust analysis of Broken Windows in New York City to date– examined police data from 1988 to 2001 and found no correlation between misdemeanor arrests and lowering crime rates. Moreover, the increase of police officers had no effect on crime in any of the city’s 75 precincts.
Another knock on Broken WIndows is that all cities in the country saw significant decreases in their crime rates during the same time period as New York, even though they were not implementing Bratton’s strategy. Compared across other large cities, New York’s decreasing crime was not unique. This reality calls into question whether Broken Windows was the reason for New York’s reduction in crime.
Broken Windows is not only challenged by the data, but social research also casts doubt on the premise that neighborhood blight is perceived as an indicator of danger. Extensive research of Chicago neighborhoods discovered that race had far more to do with perceptions of safety and neglect than did the physical environment. Researchers examined Chicago neighborhoods, recording all the “blight” they could see. They then showed videos of this blight to neighborhood residents, and they found that the presence of minority groups had a far higher correlation with perceptions of safety than did the presence of blight– even amongst minority groups themselves. The authors conclude that Broken Windows may have little effect on neighborhood perceptions compared to the area’s racial composition.
All of the evidence I have presented begs the question; If Broken Windows has little to no affect on overall crime rates, how did crime fall so dramatically in the 90s? No one is quite sure, but there are many theories. The popular book Freakonomics found that the decrease in crime correlates closely with the legalization of abortion. Other studies have claimed links between crime and a decrease in exposure to lead. Some also credit the expansion of the crack-cocaine market to a decrease in crime, as more supply made selling and obtaining drugs less dangerous. Taken together, these theories show that decreasing crime may have much more to do with socioeconomic factors than police tactics.
Despite all the evidence I have presented here, I am not implying that a Broken Windows strategy is necessarily a bad thing. Smaller crimes are one of the biggest issues here in Stockton as they affect everyone. I hate driving past walls of graffiti and blight just as much as the next person, and dedicating resources to combat these types of quality of life problems is sorely needed. And Bratton also has tremendous experience working in several different cities, and some of his other policies may very well work with Stockton. With that being said, the evidence suggests that a Broken Windows strategy should not be touted as a way to curb violent crime overall. We certainly need more police officers, but focusing on misdemeanors does not appear to be correlated with decreasing violence. Could this strategy play out differently in Stockton? Sure. Our crime issues are unique, however, we should keep in mind that data from other cities does not support Bratton’s belief that increasing misdemeanor charges will lead to an overall decrease in violent crime.