Do we need broken windows policing?

I was watching an interesting political talk show featuring, among others, a Republican candidate for Baltimore’s 1st city council district, Liz Copeland. The topic was whether Baltimore needed to change law enforcement policy in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots. There were good points on all sides and certainly brain food for me.

The idea of “broken windows policing” is that the police should rigorously enforce even the slightest infractions of the law, rather than limit their resources to investigating serious crimes, i.e. they should arrest people for breaking windows, not just for murder. The interesting question for me is more theoretical than practical: is this an idea a libertarian-leaning conservative can support?

I suppose it depends on what the law is that’s being broken. Since I believe in the right to freedom from aggression against one’s life, liberty and property, I do in fact agree that window breaking and similar property crimes should be punished. The problem arises when the same zeal is directed towards infractions of laws that I don’t believe have intrinsic merit.

One such case was referenced in the discussion: the death of Eric Garner in New York. He was arrested for selling illegal cigarettes and died after suffering a chokehold by an officer. The discussion participants seemed to agree that he was committing a crime and only disagreed on whether the police should have bothered to arrest him, but I don’t see his actions as intrinsically immoral at all. It’s the state’s fault for jacking up cigarette prices that creates this black market; on the same grounds I oppose all drug criminalization.

I welcome zero tolerance policing, but only against actual crimes.

2 thoughts on “Do we need broken windows policing?”

  1. This was a thoughtful post.

    “Broken Windows” policing, like most other things, is a good idea where you can overdo it, or do it really poorly, to the point where it is better not to have tried. Like many of these things it arose in response to specific situation. I remember studying it in the 1990s in my pre-law courses when it was the next big thing.

    The problem was that the police, for whatever reason, adopted a model of cruising around in police cars or only responding to complaints. The policeman walking a beat mostly disappeared. Broken windows really has to be understood as a partially successful attempt to get the police out of their squad cars and walking around and interacting with people. It turns out you can do that by requiring them to write up tickets for all sorts of minor infractions, so that is what was done. It also turned into an additional source of revenue for local governments.

    My suspicion is that the root problem between policemen no longer walking the beat, and the need by local governments for new sources of revenue, lay with police unions.

    The stated theory was that if you had the police present and visible in a community, the gangs who create most of the crime would get cautious and lay off things a bit. Also, the people arrested as a result of these would themselves be gang members or be doing other crimes and getting away with them. Conservatives still defend “broken windows” policing on these grounds. They ignore that historically, criminal gangs have been filled with people who have done jail time for minor infractions. Its a right of passage for them.

    The old style beat policeman would be visible, and issue warnings when he spotted minor infractions, only booking habitual offenders. The new version has citations and arrests happening on the first offensive, which creates resentment.

    The libertarian approach would be to have a few clear laws that are well publicized, and make sure they are enforced. With most cases of theft and assault, and alot though not all vandalism there is not much room for ambiguity. But there is alot of stuff that will get people in trouble with the law where its not clear that it should be a crime. During the Bloomberg era in New York, you had people get in trouble for drinking beer on their stoop, for example.

    1. Sorry, I’ve not been paying enough attention to this blog recently and only just saw your comment. Thanks! It was very informative and helped me understand the history of the practice of broken windows policing. Your point about making the laws simpler and clearer is, I think, exactly spot on.

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