“[T]he vast majority of the time I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial,” said South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott during a Senate speech on Wednesday. In it, he recounted past run-ins with police and the unfair scrutiny he has faced at their hands.
The only black Republican senator, Scott described once being tailed by a cop all the way home from the mall. The cop eventually pulled him over for failing to use his blinker on the last turn. He’s been pulled over by a cop who accused him of stealing the car he was driving. Even one of his staffers had to sell his “nice car” to avoid the same suspicion from cops.
Tim Scott’s run-ins with police highlight a form of policing that’s become status quo in most American precincts: broken-window policing.
What is Broken-Window Policing?
Broken-window policing is a criminological theory that claims policing low-level crimes helps deter future serious crimes. The theory was developed in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, and was introduced in an article from The Atlantic. The theory got its name from a passage in the article describing the procession from unorderly to crime-ridden neighborhoods…
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.
The theory claims that an orderly and maintained environment prevents fewer serious crimes from happening.
How Broken-Window Policing Breeds Distrust & Detachment
This theory on policing became more popular in the ’90s. Along with the gradual militarization of police, drug war tactics like stop-and-frisk, and the redirection of community policing funds to surveillance and counterterrorism efforts, broken-window policing became commonplace.
Despite other criticism against the theory, its biggest fault is the behavior it encourages in police. Since the theory focuses on preventing low-level crime, it ends up incentivizing aggressive police tactics, like zero-tolerance policies. The theory also tends to target minorities and the poor. Some worry that this theory encourages arresting people “for the ‘crime’ of being undesirable,” and acts “as cover for racist behavior.”
Instead of combating crime, the broken-window theory targets unappealing aspects of a neighborhood. It over-polices misdemeanors to the detriment of community trust. It’s what leads to a cop pulling over a black family with a broken tail light. It’s what leads to a cop accusing a young black person of stealing the car he was driving. This over-policing doesn’t breed trust, and it doesn’t communicate the message that cops are here to protect you. It communicates a message that cops are merely enforcers.
Moving Away From Community Policing
“You can’t arrest your way out of community problems,” said Scott Nadeau, police chief of Columbia Heights, Minnesota. But that’s just what the broken-window theory claims.
Like I mentioned before, police departments across the nation have moved away from community policing ever since the ’90s. The idea of community policing took root in the ’70s, in reaction to the riots and protests of the late ’60s. It purported that an involved police presence in the community, one that goes beyond enforcing laws and aggressive police tactics, lowered crime rates while strengthening police-community bonds. In addition to their regular duties, police would volunteer in the community, visit classrooms to establish a comfortable connection with the children, and host events to let community members voice their concerns.
The late ’90s saw an increase in dedicated community policing tactics, thanks to funds from President Clinton’s crime reforms. But those funds trickled off, eventually getting redirected toward counterterrorism efforts after 9/11.
The move away from community policing and towards broken-window policing is just one of many factors to blame for the rising distrust between minority communities and the police. Sen. Tim Scott’s retelling of his first police encounter highlights this distinction clearly. When Scott got pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight, he said “The cop came over to my car, hand on his gun and said, ‘Boy, don’t you know your headlight is not working properly?’ I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and scared, very scared.”
I can’t help but wonder if broken-window tactics like this one do anything but instill a fear of the police in the community.