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Should Major Cities Resume 'Broken Windows' Policing?

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George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 was followed in many places by protest marches and riots. The Black Lives Matter movement mushroomed in size, funding and influence. Mayors cities pilloried police and urged slashing their budgets.

In the ensuing months, especially as pandemic lockdowns eased, urban crime became more intrusive. Rampant shoplifting forced the closure of many stores, large and small. In 34 large cities, homicides surged 30 percent in 2020. Daily life in some cities evoked the menace of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.

The timing of this crime rise led to a widespread impression that Floyd’s murder and its aftermath marked a break point in urban crime. The time after May 2020 did see crime increases, but the preceding decade paved the way, writes Charles Murray of The American Enterprise Institute in the Washington Post.

The national crime story tells of a disastrous rise in crime in the 1960s and 1970s, followed in the 1990s and 2000s by one of the great successes of social policy, a steep decline in crime. The progress occurred after many large cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., adopted a new public safety philosophy: broken-windows policing.

“Broken windows” refers to the argument that making arrests for minor offenses heads off a sense of lawlessness that invites serious crime. These offenses are ones for which police choose to ignore depending on the circumstances — offenses that don’t physically harm anyone or steal property but are insults to public order.

New York, Los Angeles and Washington have posted online databases containing raw data for each arrest made in those cities from 2013 through 2022. Murray counted non-felony arrests for eight categories of offenses that are especially targeted by broken-windows policing: vandalism, theft of services (such as turnstile-jumping), vagrancy, public drunkenness, lewd behavior, prostitution and solicitation thereof, loitering and disorderly conduct.

In New York and Los Angeles, the fall in arrests for broken-windows offenses was steep and steady from 2013 to 2020. Washington is different, with a sudden rise in broken-windows arrests in 2019. The anomaly was created by a one-year spike in arrests for prostitution and solicitation, the result of a policy decision to clear the streets of sex workers near hotels. If arrests for prostitution and solicitation are deleted from the Washington data, the trendline of broken-windows offenses shows the same uninterrupted decline in New York and Los Angeles.

As of 2022, arrests for broken-windows offenses since 2013 had fallen by 74 percent in New York, 77 percent in Washington and 81 percent in Los Angeles. The collapse of broken-windows policing was accompanied by a broader retreat from law enforcement in all three cities for felonies as well as misdemeanors.

Many explanations can be offered for the collapse of broken-windows policing in these three U.S. cities, but the effects are not complicated, Murray says. The daily quality of life of people living in much of New York, Los Angeles and Washington has suffered.

Boarded-up stores, vandalism and people sleeping on the streets have increased along with smaller indignities of life public drinking and drug use, omnipresent graffiti, intimidation of passersby.

These costs of ending broken-windows policing are not borne by people in affluent suburbs or rich urban neighborhoods. They are disproportionately borne by urbanites who are minorities or have modest incomes, or both. If improving their lives is the goal, restoring broken-windows policing should be part of the solution, Murray contends.


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