November 30, 2005

Broken Windows

Matthew Yglesias' post on "broken windows" policing reminded me to link to a great Legal Affairs debate on the subject, between Bernard Harcourt and David Thacher. Both seem to agree that social science research is very inconclusive as to whether "broken windows" policing and cracking down on public disorder and graffiti and panhandling and the like actually helps reduce the crime rate. Intuition suggests that it should, but the research says otherwise.

Anyway, Harcourt says "broken windows" policing is a waste of time, and diverts resources away from more serious police functions. Thacher says that even if it doesn't reduce crime, order maintenance is still worth doing in itself—because disorder is gross, and can destroy public spaces (that, in turn, affects the poor the most). That sounds reasonable, but there are two things to be wary of here. In practice, "broken windows" policing usually relies on a major increase in misdemeanor arrests, even when that's not the intent. And inevitably, the people who are arrested here are disproportionately minorities—a disparity that can have very poisonous effects. Plus, as Harcourt points out, perceptions of disorder are often shaped by race: a recent study, "Seeing Disorder," found that people see more disorder in neighborhoods with higher numbers of blacks, Latinos, and in places with higher levels of poverty, even when there isn't, in fact, more disorder.

But even so, Thacher still makes the case that order maintenance in public spaces is necessary and right, and "soft" order maintenance measures—social services, building proper public facilities, etc.—won't always do the trick. He also points out that even if law enforcement is a racially unjust system, it still might be better than other options:
No one relishes the use of coercion to deal with problems like disorder, whether the coercion is exercised by police or by anyone else. Institutionalizing the mentally ill and many of the other alternatives to order maintenance policing that you describe in your second paragraph obviously raise their own civil liberties concerns, as you clearly acknowledge. (Michel Foucault… recognized these dangers as clearly as anyone, as have those he inspired.) One advantage of police order maintenance is that no one can fail to recognize that it is coercive.

Therapeutic solutions like institutionalization make it dangerously easy to jump too quickly to the claim that "it's for their own good," but it's harder to kid ourselves that way about police order maintenance. It puts us on our guard. It forces us, hopefully, to recognize the need to face the tough questions you rightfully asked yesterday: Do we really have good reason to intervene against this disorder? Is this really wrongful conduct? Or are we just being finicky, intolerant—even racist?
That's a clever argument, but very, very dubious. David Cole's No Equal Justice makes a good case that those who have the luxury of debating the justice system have in fact been very, very good at "kid[ding] ourselves" about disparities in the system—especially since the many double standards in law enforcement "allow the privileged to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without paying the costs associated with extending those protections across the board to minorities and the poor." It's allowed people to avoid "tough questions" about the tradeoff between liberty and security. Plus, voters seem to be especially irrational about crime control in a way they aren't about many other things. In no other policy field, it seems, are the experts who know how to control crime, deal with drug use, reduce incarceration rates, etc., so thoroughly ignored. It's true that the subtle coercion inherent in other social policies is often ignored, but to say that law enforcement policy "puts us on our guard" seems wrong.

But at any rate, it's a nuanced debate, far better than what I've presented here, and definitely worth reading in full.
-- Brad Plumer 10:56 PM || ||