Bratton’s ‘broken windows’

BERNARD E. HARCOURT is a law professor at the University of Chicago and author of "Policing L.A.'s Skid Row: Crime and Real Estate Redevelopment in Downtown Los Angeles." His new study, "Broken Windows," appears in the Winter 2006 issue of the University of Chicago Law Review.

AT A MEETING of the world’s top cops in San Francisco today, the first topic on the agenda will be whether the “broken windows” theory on which Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has built his career is, in fact, an effective crime-fighting technique.

The theory was first articulated by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the Atlantic magazine in 1982. They argued that minor forms of disorder -- such as graffiti, litter, panhandling and prostitution -- will, if left unattended, result in an increase in serious criminal activity. Clean up minor disorder, they said, and a reduction in major crime will follow.

Lately, “broken windows” policing has returned to the front burner because of two new initiatives. Two months ago, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced a crackdown on such minor misdemeanor offenses as loud house parties, public drinking and improperly disposed trash. “For those of us familiar with the ‘broken window’ theory and reality,” Menino said, “we know that these kinds of community-disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow.”


At about the same time, Kelling was on hand to help launch a “broken windows” program in Denver’s Westwood area, which local officials said would target graffiti removal, among other things.

Bratton has been on board the “broken windows” bandwagon for many years, since long before he arrived in L.A. As New York’s police chief in the mid-1990s, he implemented a quality-of-life initiative to much acclaim, and he campaigned for the top job in L.A. on a “broken windows” platform.

In October 2002, after being selected to head the Los Angeles Police Department, Bratton told the media he would “make graffiti a top priority for all officers.” Bratton identified L.A.’s skid row as one of the main areas where he would target and test “broken windows” policing, and since then, he has aggressively enforced misdemeanor violations in L.A.’s central district.

Over the years, however, “broken windows” policing has been controversial. Many reputable social scientists have suggested that there is no reliable evidence of a “broken windows” effect whatsoever. But Bratton hasn’t wavered -- arguing instead, according to the Boston Globe, that the academics are simply revealing an anti-cop bias.

“What particularly galls police,” Bratton wrote in a National Review Online article he co-authored with Kelling this year, “is that ivory-tower academics -- many of whom have never sat in a patrol car, walked or bicycled a beat, lived in or visited regularly troubled violent neighborhoods or collected any relevant data of their own ‘on the ground’ -- cloak themselves in the mantle of an empirical ‘scientist’ and produce ‘findings’ indicating that ‘broken windows’ has been disproved. Worse, they allege that police have had little to do with the declines in crime.”

On this score, Bratton is just flat wrong. The debate about maintaining order is not about being pro-cop or anti-cop. Nor is it about an anti-policing bias in the social sciences. It’s about relying on solid empirical evidence to allocate scarce police resources more intelligently. It’s about smart policing.


Everybody agrees that police matter. The question is how to allocate scarce police dollars. Should cops be arresting, processing and clogging the courts with minor-disorder offenders or focusing on violence, as well as gang and gun crimes, with the help of increased computerized crime tracking? The evidence, in my view, is clear: Focusing on minor misdemeanors is a waste.

I recently concluded a study with my colleague, Jens Ludwig, of 1990s New York crime data. We found no evidence for the proposition that disorder causes crime or that “broken windows” policing reduces serious crime. Rather, the pattern of crime reduction across New York precincts during the 1990s, when Bratton was first experimenting with “broken windows” policing, is entirely consistent with what statisticians call “mean reversion.” Those precincts that experienced the largest drops in crime in the 1990s were the ones that experienced the largest increases in crime during the city’s crack epidemic of the mid- to late-1980s. What goes up must come down -- and it would have come down even if New York had not embarked on its quality-of-life initiative.

Ludwig and I also studied an important five-city social experiment called Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing, which is underway in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston and Baltimore. Under the federally funded program, about 4,600 low-income families living in high-crime public housing communities characterized by high rates of social disorder were randomly assigned housing vouchers to move to less disadvantaged and less disorderly communities. We compared the crime rates among those who moved and those who didn’t -- using official arrests and self-report surveys -- and the results are clear, though disappointing: Moving people to communities with less social or physical disorder does not lead to reductions in their criminal behavior. Neighborhood order and disorder do not seem to have a noticeable effect on criminal behavior.

Our findings are consistent with research in 1999 on Chicago neighborhoods by Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush showing that, when neighborhood poverty and collective trust are taken into account, the connection between disorder and crime essentially vanishes. It also tracks with Jeffrey Fagan’s research in New York linking the drop in crime to gun patterns, and Steven Levitt’s study tracing the drop to four factors (including the increased prison population and the decline in crack use) -- none of which include “broken windows” policing. As David Thacher at the University of Michigan notes: “Social science has not been kind to the ‘broken windows’ theory.”

The dirty little secret is that Bratton knows all this. Despite promising to make “broken windows” a top priority in L.A., Bratton actually disbanded the 11-member undercover LAPD transit police anti-graffiti unit six months after taking office. This despite the fact that the unit made more than 500 graffiti-related arrests the previous year.

Why did Bratton disband the unit? Because those arrests -- and their associated costs in officer salaries, benefits, overhead, precinct expenses and judicial resources -- were a waste of money compared to what he could do with 11 cops fighting serious gang crime.


The question the top cops need to address at their San Francisco meeting is how to allocate scarce street-crime-fighting dollars in a new policing environment that is focused more and more on international terrorism. The answer to this question is clear -- and it has nothing to do with graffiti, trash removal or being anti-cop.