Don't Turn Your Back on Disorder

There will be many calls to action in the aftermath of the grand jury's decision to offer a no true bill in the Michael Brown case. One of those calls will likely be to end broken windows policing, the decades-old model in which police focus on less serious crime in neighborhoods.

Such police methods have proven successful in reducing fear and in helping residents take control of their communities and thus reduce serious crime. But citizens often are quick to indict police attention to low-level offenses (like Michael Brown's jaywalking) as causing police to use excessive force.

There is no doubt that reforms should be made to various criminal justice practices and processes related to the Michael Brown case (i.e., stop-question-and-frisk tactics, the appropriate application of force, and grand jury proceedings that involve police). But, as the police profession and our greater society deal with ways to rebuild (and in many cases build) relationships between the police and its citizenry, I fear that if outsider reformers call for police to ignore disorderly offenses the chasm between the police and the community will only widen.

The Department of Justice's National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice calls for addressing officers' sometimes unconscious biases and for training that ensures that citizens are treated fairly and with respect. Such reforms will, in my view, help citizens see police more as allies, but only if they are accompanied by broken windows policing practices.

In their groundbreaking 1982 article on broken windows policing George Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote: "If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken....Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers, whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."

Taking police attention away from these problems of disorder would turn back the proverbial clock to a time when police viewed themselves as professionally remote crime fighters instead of the guardians and caretakers of our communities, as characterized by the profession's new community problem-solving era.

Places like Ferguson--plagued by the "root causes" of criminal behavior (i.e., concentrated poverty; under-education; unemployment)--often lack the informal controls necessary to deal with such quality-of-life offenses. The police, traditionally seen as the defenders of such status quo-maintaining systems, would only further damage their legitimacy by turning their back on the so-called minor offenses that most often concern citizens and diminish their quality of life.

Nowhere has police attention to minor offenses been more successful in both reducing crime and improving quality of life than in Los Angeles. A section in my co-authored book describes how the LAPD implemented broken windows policing in Skid Row, a hotspot of criminal and disorderly activities.

I was observing a police officer on foot patrol one afternoon. People resting alongside buildings and on the curbs lined the otherwise unobstructed sidewalks of Skid Row. The officer, playing the part of a politician, stopped and talked with people, shook their hands, called some by name and followed up on previous conversations. Many smiled and called him by his surname as they listed their compliments and complaints.

An African American gentleman complained to the officer about another police officer, "Black Nigger Billy" who is overly invasive and too physically forceful in his patrols of the area. The officer replied that he was aware of these concerns and that he would follow up with his colleague and his supervisor.

The officer then spoke with the director of a local mission about the LAPD's community and police collaborative intended to address issues of quality of life.

In between these chats, the officer kindly stopped a man with whom he was obviously familiar. The man was carrying a box of small vases, each containing a silk, red rose. The officer, using his discretion, scolded him, acting as though the man must have forgotten the crooked use of the small vases--as a crack pipe. He then requested the man smash the vases and throw them in the garbage.

The officer exemplifies the police role in maintaining an order that is defined by and upheld by the varied stakeholders of the unique community that is Skid Row--no zero-tolerance approach; no disrespect; no unnecessary use of force; and most importantly, not turning his back on disorder.

I champion just reforms to our criminal justice system in the wake of tragedy. I also hope that the necessary legitimacy-building and use-of-force training that some are proposing will take hold in the profession as a whole. But I cannot support an end to having police attend to disorderly behavior. The practice has come too far and has been proven too beneficial to communities to have it left out of this new reform movement.