Reminder: Broken Windows Theory Is BS

Reminder: Broken Windows Theory Is BS

Even on good days, the New York City subway is a nightmare of epic proportions. Its trains are overcrowded, stations are dilapidated, and the system is so unreliable that everything ran smoother and faster in the '90s -- a period defined by dial-up internet and cellphones so large that they killed 40% of users by crushing them.

In the last few weeks, the subway has been flooded with police officers and surveillance cameras as part of a new crackdown on the real problem: fare evasion, which reportedly costs the city over $200 million annually. However, there's nothing to be worried about. The police are only there as a scare tactic, because fare evasion is such a low-rung nonsense crime that last year, Manhattan's district attorney started refusing to prosecute offenders, meaning that evaders only have to pay a $100 civil fine.

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Anyway, here's a video showing several police officers storming a train carriage, guns drawn, and beating the shit out of a teenager for hopping a turnstile.

A subway ride costs $2.75. This was the reaction over the price of a pack of toilet paper.

On the face of it, this crackdown makes sense when you consider that hefty $200 million figure. That's a lot of money that could go toward making the trains suck less ... except it isn't, really. In the coming years, the subway is looking at a non-optional infrastructure upgrade that will cost over $40 billion -- or to put it another way, the amount of money they'd lose to fare evasion over the next 200 years. Besides, if something unexpectedly costing over $200 million annually requires a harsh crackdown, the NYPD might want to refocus its attention onto, um, the NYPD.

So if it's not about the money, what's this really about? Well, it's all part of a new initiative by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to stamp out "quality of life" issues on the subway, beginning with fare evasion. Cuomo claims this is a worthwhile enterprise because of the "high correlation" between fare evaders and people who go on to assault transit workers. We don't know what high-level crime the NYPD is stopping by harassing and detaining churro sellers (then allegedly eating said churros), but whatever it is, it's not worth it.

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This type of law enforcement has a name: broken windows policing. The idea is that preventing small-scale crimes in turn prevents large-scale crimes from occurring. If a building is vandalized, for instance, that can signal to local crime-doers that the area is ripe for criming, and over time, the area becomes more and more crimey until that formerly sweet and innocent building is hosting a 9/11 2.0 planning committee.

Although broken windows theory was touted as a potential law enforcement strategy as early as 1982, it wasn't until the '90s that it found success as a flagpole policy of newly elected NYC mayor (and romancer of cousins) Rudy Giuliani. Today it's credited with helping to transform the city from a harsh and grimy metropolis to, well, still that, but with billboards and a worse subway.

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Reminder: Broken Windows Theory Is BS
Elad Nehorai/Twitter
Oh, and a police force that will threaten your life over pocket change.

There's only one slight problem: The broken windows theory is wrong.

As law professor Bernard Harcourt told NPR, the period in which the NYPD was using broken windows theory to guide its policies -- basically cracking down on misdemeanor offenses such as littering, subway fare evasion(!), graffiti, selling loose cigarettes, and smoking weed -- does coincide with a drop in violent crime arrests. This drop, however, wasn't restricted to NYC. It happened across the entire country, and according to statistics from the period, it began before Giuliani entered office.

Did the nation's police get better at their jobs? Not really. As Harcourt points out, the Los Angeles Police Department was a corrupt, dysfunctional monster, and the city still experienced a drop in violent crime. When Harcourt looked at the data which Giuliani claimed proved the success of broken windows policing, he found a potential answer in something that statisticians refer to as a "reversion to the mean." Or to put it another way, "What goes up must come down."

The crime rate fell during the period that NYC was following broken windows, that's not in doubt. But what the criminologists who originally analyzed this data didn't take into account was that broken windows was responding to a spike in violent crime that culminated nationwide in approximately 1990/1991, and then began trending down back toward everyday levels. This was the drop which Giuliani et al. took as proof of their policy's success.

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Violent Crime Rates from 1973 to 2005 Adjusted violent victimization rates Number of victimizations per 1.000 population age 12 and over 60 5o 40 30 2
U.S. Dept. of Justice
Sadly, it would be another three years before "A rock to keep tigers away" would enter the lexicon to describe this kind of thing.

It's also impossible to talk about broken windows as a law enforcement technique without discussing how police officers took it as an excuse to brutalize anyone they suspected of having committed a misdemeanor -- particularly members of black, immigrant, and/or low-income communities. It'd be easy to point to this as a unique failing of the NYPD, but check out what the criminologists who developed the theory wrote in a 1982 article for The Atlantic:

We might agree that certain behavior makes one person more undesirable than another but how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?

We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question.

There was never a chance that broken windows wouldn't become centered along racial and/or class lines, especially considering that a later study found that when people were asked to rate the "disorderliness" of two identical neighborhoods, the one with the majority low-income/black population would always be rated as worse. Broken windows policing is also notable for how it gave rise to "stop and frisk," a law enforcement practice which was only halted in NYC in 2017 after a federal court found in 2013 that detaining people for walking while black/brown/poor was mildly unconstitutional, to say the least.

It's not hard to understand why governments continually come back to broken windows. People commit small-scale offenses all the damn time, which makes perpetrators easier to find and prosecute. That in turn makes the police and city government look like they're cleaning up the streets and preventing Big Crimes from happening. But it's all a facade. In the same way violent crime rates in the '90s were dropping before broken windows policing came along, transit crime rates today are lower than in previous years. The subway isn't great, but it's far from being the churro-fueled fight club the NYC government wants you to think it is.

You can find more from Adam on Twitter! He also has a newsletter about depressing history facts. (It's not as sad it sounds, promise.)

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