Police can’t get tough on crime until we help them fix a crisis of their own

Editor’s note: This op-ed is adapted from an article that first appeared in City Journal.

More than 40 years have passed since the publication of one of the most important public-policy essays ever written. Its title, “Broken Windows,” captured the essence of a simple but deeply insightful idea: public order matters. “[I]f a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” wrote the late authors, political scientist James Q. Wilson and longtime Manhattan Institute senior fellow George L. Kelling, in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic.  

Visible signs of chaos were like warnings: you’re not safe here. If left unaddressed, the chaos made those areas more vulnerable to further disorder, including serious crime. “‘[U]ntended’ behavior,” the authors maintained, “leads to the breakdown of community controls” and causes residents to “think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and … modify their behavior accordingly.” The areas where disorder festers become more “vulnerable to criminal invasion” than “places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls.” 

The theory — expanded on by Kelling and his wife, Catherine Coles, in their 1996 book, “Fixing Broken Windows” — sparked a revolution in American policing. At the direction of innovative officials like NYPD commissioner and later LAPD Chief William “Bill” Bratton, and with crucial support from political leaders like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, police departments across the country would, in the 1990s and 2000s, adopt tactics and strategies that reflected these vital insights.  

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Proactive policing not only drove street crime down but also yielded unexpected benefits — like the illegal firearms discovered during pat-downs of turnstile jumpers in the subways and the outstanding arrest warrants discovered on the street through the enforcement of open-container violations. The historic, generation-long crime decline that resulted as Broken Windows policing took hold widely solidified legendary status for Kelling and Wilson. 

Yet this law-enforcement revolution sparked acrimonious pushback from anti-police academics and activists — aided, in no small part, by how often the concept of Broken Windows policing was misinterpreted and distorted, much to the frustration of its originators.  

These distortions became more influential as crime continued its downward trajectory nationwide during the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, as large urban police departments focused on developing counterterrorism capabilities in a post-9/11 world and as a new generation of urban residents came of age with little or no awareness of recent history.  

Progressive critics argued for rolling back proactive policing measures and for lessening criminal-justice penalties; and a series of viral police use-of-force incidents, beginning in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, built momentum for these efforts, while intensifying hostility toward law enforcement. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 served as the movement’s apex, triggering some of the deadliest urban riots in the United States since the 1960s amid widespread condemnation of police. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, 2020 marked the largest one-year homicide spike in at least 100 years. Four years later, with crime — particularly gun violence — still well above pre-2020 levels in many U.S. cities, calls for American police to return to their mid-1990s crime-fighting approach have gotten louder. Unfortunately, this appeal, while entirely justified, cannot be practically pursued in the current environment.  

Two massive obstacles block the return of Broken Windows–style policing: the police workforce crisis; and the demonization of cops, and of policing itself, as racist. The kind of policing that led to one of the safest generations on record for American cities cannot be revived until these obstacles are surmounted. 

In many U.S. cities today, proactive policing is a distant consideration. Police can often barely keep up with calls for service, maintain compliance with new, more burdensome reporting requirements, and, in some places, even staff shifts fully. According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), resignations were up nearly 50% in 2022 relative to 2019, and retirements were up almost 20%; departments haven’t been able to hire enough officers to replace those leaving.  

Even if departments could do so, they’d be replacing veteran officers with less experienced ones. And as more departments reduce or modify hiring standards to boost recruitment, you can bet that new officers will not only be less seasoned but, in many cases, less competent. 

What has the workforce crisis meant in practice? In Pittsburgh, police will no longer be responding to 911 calls that don’t involve emergencies in progress between 3:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. In Houston, police have “suspended” more than 250,000 cases because of a lack of personnel. In Baltimore, a staffing shortage of more than 400 officers meant that on March 19 of this year, the city’s Southern District (home to some 61,000 residents) had just three officers on patrol for an entire shift, according to the city’s local Fox affiliate.  

Baltimore is not alone on this front. A police source in Chicago sent me snapshots of assignment schedules for some city districts several months ago. On July 20 of last year, the 1530–0200 shift in the fifth district should have had cars assigned to eight beats. Only one car was on the street for that shift. The 1730–0400 shift had cars assigned to only four of the eight beats. On June 2, the 2100–0730 shift should have had cars assigned to ten beats. It could staff only five. For the 1530–0200 shift, just two beats had a car assigned to them. 

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In New York, the staffing issues that have taken the NYPD from a force of more than 40,000 at the turn of the century to about 33,500 today have also driven up response times for many kinds of service calls.  

As I reported in the New York Post, in October 2022, the response times for critical, serious, and noncritical calls had risen 38%, 43%, and 52%, respectively, since October 2019. It now takes nearly 10 minutes before an officer responds to a critical call for service, and more than 27 minutes to respond to a noncritical call. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the effect on citizen willingness to call in reports on less urgent matters. 

In addition to capacity problems, police face a morale crisis that has contributed to recruitment and retention issues and affected how officers engage with their environments when on patrol. In another PERF survey, many police executives tied their recruitment and retention problems to officer morale. 

The impact of this negative environment on police practice can be seen in sharp declines in arrests, which, between 2009 and 2019, fell by 25% nationally. In many cities, the decline is especially pronounced for the quality-of-life offenses — fare evasion, lewd behavior, vandalism, loitering, public drinking and intoxication — that Broken Windows told us warranted police attention. 

A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute found that, between 2013 and 2022, arrests for such offenses fell 74% in New York City, 77% in Washington, D.C., and 81% in Los Angeles. 

So, while it’s worth debating whether theories like Broken Windows and tactics like Stop, Question, and Frisk can help get crime back under control, what must be tackled first is the recruitment, retention, and morale crises facing police departments. Proactive policing requires manpower; and right now, too many departments are thin on the ground. 

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