‘Broken Windows,’ and the Cracks in NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s Legacy

Can the policing model Bill Bratton made famous survive his resignation and the controversy over mass incarceration?

Outgoing NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.
Outgoing NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.

When Bill Bratton stepped down as NYPD commissioner in 1996, amid scandal and personal conflicts with the mayor, he—along with the “broken windows” philosophy he had implemented and come to personify—was heralded as a miracle-worker, the savior of New York City from decades of crime and chaos.

When he resigned a second time in 2016, amid scandal and personal conflicts with the mayor, he—and his philosophy too—was greeted with jeers and heckles and shouts of “racist!”

What changed in between? Well, the city, the country and the entire political conversation around policing. Crime rates have plunged and incarceration rates skyrocketed. Pimps, muggers and drug-dealers no longer infest so many of the city’s streets and parks. Nowadays, those public spaces have become the habitat of protesters objecting to police killings and abuses, which they claim Bratton and “broken windows” enabled.

No doubt some of the acrimony owes to the dismissive way the commissioner dealt with his critics. Calm and cordial as Bratton could be, he brooked no challenge to his authority and expertise, and dispensed his opinions with utter indifference to who he might upset. Whether it was sneering at the “novice” City Council and its proposed police reforms, laughing off the protesters who greeted him each time he appeared at City Hall, praising the controversial 1965 Moynihan report on the African-American family, blaming the murders of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos on the Black Lives Matter movement or calling hip-hop artists “thugs,” he offended, angered and alienated the city’s political class all the way up to his boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I believe the personality poisoned the atmosphere beyond what was necessary,” said Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, a top proponent of the policy changes Bratton disdained. “He had an opportunity to become a unifying figure, and he instead chose to become a divisive figure.”

At 68, Bratton will doubtless enjoy a long and lucrative retirement—if that’s what you want to call his new gig analyzing “risk” for Teneo Holdings. But what is the future for his trademark tactics of coming down on minor crimes, and for the theory that doing so prevents more serious offenses? “Broken windows” has become such a politically radioactive term that de Blasio stopped using it entirely in recent weeks.

“I think that the incoming commissioner will have a really tough job to do in terms of trying to decide if there is some legitimate role for broken windows policing,” Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, founding director of the John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice, told the Observer.

Jones-Brown noted Bratton’s resignation came only a little over a month after NYPD Inspector General Phillip Eure released a report finding no link between ticketing and arrests for low-level offenses and violent crime in the period between 2010 and 2015. Bratton’s press office labeled the report “deeply flawed,” but it affirmed a feeling often voiced at anti-police protests: that “broken windows” strategies led to disproportionate enforcement action in low-income, nonwhite neighborhoods, and left already disadvantaged people with permanently blemished records.

Protesters attack Bratton in City Hall Park last week.
Protesters attack Bratton in City Hall Park last week.

Jones-Brown suggested that this was because the data-driven Compstat model for tracking and targeting minor violations, which Bratton introduced in the 1990s, evolved into an informal quota system—creating “perverse incentives” for cops to make more apprehensions and citations over relatively small issues.

“Whether it was arrests, or summonses, or UF250s, police had to demonstrate they were being productive,” she said. “Poor and minority community members were saying this low level enforcement was interfering with their opportunities for housing and employment.”

But despite the IG report’s findings, Jones-Brown argued there are some psychological benefits to the “broken windows” approach.

“You will find people who will say the streets were more orderly when ‘broken windows’ was the strategy, less noise, less littering, less public smoking of marijuana, less kids hanging out on the streets,” she said. “People who lived in public housing, and other rented properties, felt there was more control over their buildings. People hanging out, regardless of whether they were engaged in unlawful activity—it created fear. And the idea that the police were attentive to their concerns gave them a feeling of security.”

The overall data on the efficacy of “broken windows” policing is mixed. There is no universally accepted explanation for why crime plummeted across the North American continent in the 1990s. Competing theories have attributed it to an improving economy, the elimination of lead-laced paint and gasoline, expanded access to abortion and—yes—to increased incarceration and the crackdown on minor offenses.

The George Mason University Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy cites six studies of varying rigor on the impact of “broken windows”-style, quality-of-life policing. Three find such an approach does lead to decreases in serious crime, three find it has no effect at all. Part of the problem, the CEBCP admits, is defining and measuring what constitutes true “broken windows” enforcement.

Sociologist George Kelling, who co-created the concept with his late colleague James Q. Wilson, argued confusion and conflation with hard-line 90s and 2000s-era police policies have tarnished the idea’s reputation.

“It’s not ‘stop, question and frisk,’ it’s not ‘zero tolerance,'” Kelling insisted to the Observer, alluding to controversial programs the NYPD made famous under former Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “It’s a building block of community policing.”

In fact, “broken windows” as Kelling and Wilson described it in their original 1982 article in the Atlantic jibes both with Jones-Brown’s observations and with de Blasio’s vision of a more interactive, cooperative police force.

The article takes as its starting point a statewide program in 1970s New Jersey that took police officers out of their squad cars and put them on foot patrol. After five years, a study found the initiative had a minimal impact on the crime rate—but discovered that it reaped tremendous social dividends nonetheless.

“Residents of the foot patrolled neighborhoods seemed to feel more secure than persons in other areas, tended to believe that crime had been reduced, and seemed to take fewer steps to protect themselves from crime (staying at home with the doors locked, for example),” they wrote. “Moreover, citizens in the foot-patrol areas had a more favorable opinion of the police than did those living elsewhere. And officers walking beats had higher morale, greater job satisfaction and a more favorable attitude toward citizens in their neighborhoods than did officers assigned to patrol cars.”

Kelling himself toured inner-city Newark with a cop he called “Kelly.” Kelly, he discovered, had developed a strong rapport with the “regulars” on his beat, and seemed to have established widely observed standards for behavior.

Drunks and druggies could sit on stoops, but not lay down on them and fall asleep. People could consume alcohol in public, but only so long as they kept their beverages in brown paper bags and stayed off the main drag. Panhandling was verboten. If some newcomer to the neighborhood violated these unspoken rules, Kelly told them to move along or took them into custody—but, more importantly, such offenders found themselves loudly denounced by the neighborhood regulars. The standards had become self-sustaining.

“The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself,” the sociologists wrote.

The breakdown of community mores didn’t necessarily coincide with spikes in crime, but Kelling and Wilson argued it created fertile turf for lawlessness to take root.

Abandoned South Bronx tenement blocks in 1977.
Abandoned South Bronx tenement blocks in 1977.

“A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed,” they said. “Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.”

“Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit and cars will be stripped,” they continued.

They made other interesting observations: public housing residents, for example, identified the most dangerous area of their complex as the spot where unruly youths met up, even if nobody had ever actually committed a crime there. And these effects weren’t limited to poor, majority-minority areas.

The pair cited a study by famed Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who parked a car with no plates and a popped hood on the street in Palo Alto. Nobody bothered with it for days, until Zimbardo hit it with a sledgehammer—which prompted a group of “respectable whites” to converge on the vehicle and flip it over.

“One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing,” Wilson and Kelling observed.

A generation later, Kelling maintains his proposals work. And for proof, he points to Bratton’s 1990-1992 tenure as chief of the New York City Transit Police—then a separate department from the NYPD—when Kelling himself served as a consultant to the city.

Then in his early 40s, the Boston-born police leader came in determined to defeat turnstile jumping—which had hit a record quarter-million offenders per day—and graffiti (which Kelling and Wilson had argued in ’82 “confronts the subway rider with the inescapable knowledge that the environment he must endure for an hour or more a day is uncontrolled and uncontrollable”).

But before barging in and arresting scofflaws en masse, Bratton made sure he informed riders that his officers were instating new standards. Through radio, TV and signs posted in stations and trains, the Transit Police warned the public that a crackdown on low-level malefactors was coming.

Using maps of the system, Bratton pinpointed the problem stations (a forerunner to Compstat) and parked booking buses outside, so Transit cops could avoid bringing offenders downtown.

“The idea was to make even the arrest process, or the summons process as unintrusive as possible,” Kelling recalled.  “The subway experience illustrates the classic broken windows approach. Even when you have to intervene to arrest people, you streamline it.”

Arrests surged and, sure enough, the murder rate in the subways dropped precipitously along with vandalism and fare-beating. But the sociologist insisted the point wasn’t to collar large numbers of straphangers, only to weed out the incessant violators and those who happened have also committed worse crimes. Bratton’s main aim was to encourage better habits among the larger train-riding population.

Exterior of subway cars painted with graffiti in the 1970s.
Exterior of subway cars painted with graffiti in the 1970s.

“There still going to be people who are repeat offenders, or are going to be people with felony warrants, and you’re going to do something about them,” he said. “You’re going to see an uptick in arrests. But arrests are going to decline over time, and more and more people are going to simply stop.”

Kelling asserted that Bratton remained an exemplar of “good ‘broken windows’ practice” during his two-year stint as NYPD commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The problems began, the scholar said, after Bratton left, as key components of approach to policing got lost and the relationship between cops and civilians became increasingly adversarial.

“Any time you start to have informal quotas for arrest and arrests become an indicator for police productivity, that leads to bad broken windows practice. Arrests for disorderly conduct are very easy to make,” he said. “What happens is they’re imposing order, rather than helping the citizens in maintaining order or restoring order. If they’re practicing broken windows without tying into the community, in my opinion you’re not really practicing broken windows.”

Some interpreted Bratton’s de Blasio-era embrace of certain decriminalization measures, turning everything from possession of small amounts of marijuana to public urination and after-dark park loitering into civil offenses in most cases, as a repudiation of “broken windows.” But according to Kelling, such moves are in keeping with his model’s prescription for officer discretion.

“The whole idea was to warn, to educate, to say ‘knock it off, move along,'” he said.

Whatever becomes of Bratton and the phrase he helped make famous, Kelling is confident his model will endure, simply because the average citizen will always want to see their town and its police keep their neighborhoods clean and orderly.

“I’m not wedded to the term ‘broken windows.’ It was a metaphor that captured a lot of attention, and it worked for a couple of decades. And now I don’t know if it can be rehabilitated,” he told the Observer. “For me, broken windows is equated with order maintenance activities, and that is dealing with minor problems. That’s going to persist even if they don’t call it ‘broken windows.”

‘Broken Windows,’ and the Cracks in NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s Legacy