Bill Torpy at Large: 'Broken windows’ racist? Or a needed enforcement tool?


For a generation, “broken windows” has been viewed as the secret sauce of policing that dramatically slashed crime rates. An invention some consider even better than the two-way radio.

But Atlanta Councilman Kwanza Hall thinks broken windows is broke. And kind of racist.

So the three-term councilman is introducing an ordinance to repeal some quality-of-life statutes to help “build trust” between cops and communities. He said laws such as jaywalking and “idling and loitering” hearken back to Jim Crow and are used to target black residents, curtailing their futures with arrest records.

“I agree with broken windows when we’re talking about physical windows. But when we’re talking about people, broken windows falls on its face,” he said. “With all these strikes (against them) it makes it difficult to fix a person.”

Hall said he wants to spur a “serious conversation” around the subject of policing. Moreover, it appears his proposal is a soft kickoff for his still-unannounced candidacy in next year’s mayoral race. Hall’s plan also calls for more police transparency and publicizing the demographic information surrounding stops and arrests — ground staked out by Black Lives Matters.

Coincidentally, our conversation occurred Tuesday, the same day that New York Police Commissioner William Bratton announced he is stepping down. Bratton has become the national face of the broken windows theory because of large crime drops in Gotham City the past 20 years.

“Broken windows” comes from a 1982 Atlantic magazine article that said enforcing minor crimes leads to a more law-abiding environment, one that prevents more serious crimes.

“One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares,” the article said, “and so breaking more windows costs nothing” to lawbreakers.

Retired Atlanta police Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli remembers reading the article and thinking, “Wow, this is a paradigm shift. Before this, we were at a point where they said (crime is) about poverty and child abuse and poor education. But this said that when you enforce the rules, people act differently.”

Arcangeli started policing in the early 1970s and said it was residents in black communities who were most frustrated by crime and were calling on police to solve it.

“They were insistent that police do something because they didn’t want to live in a community without rules,” he said. “In communities there are informal codes of conduct. And when the informal codes deteriorate, then the formal codes — the laws — have to kick in. I think it’s racist to assume that black communities don’t want the same level of informal codes.”

Asked about Hall’s proposal, Arcangeli said, “I think he’s chasing the young people’s votes.”

Hall, who represents much of downtown and Midtown, also talked “paradigm shift,” saying he wants to try to divert some of those getting arrested to social programs or rehab.

Marshall Rancifer, who has an outreach program for homeless people and those in jail, has crunched the numbers and said there were 104,000 quality-of-life arrests between 2012 to 2015 in Atlanta, and 90,000 of those arrestees were black.

“It seems like a war on black folks when it comes to the criminal justice system,” said Rancifer. He said he understands the frustration of residents calling cops on petty offenders, “but you can’t arrest people out of addiction.”

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said Hall hasn’t been very specific in his proposals, and he echoed Arcangeli in saying: “Quality-of-life issues are things communities absolutely want us to enforce. If you talk to citizens in challenged communities, they are not asking for less officers; they are asking for more.”

The chief, a 35-year Atlanta Police Department veteran, said quality-of-life laws are tools “that allow us to take people off the street who are a nuisance.”

The APD has added more cops during Turner’s six years in office but arrests are down. Quality-of-life arrests are down by about a third and serious crime is down almost that much this year when compared to 2009.

A recent report in New York saw “a dramatic decline in quality-of-life enforcement with no increase in felony crime.” Opponents of broken-windows policing point to that study as proof that the strategy doesn’t work.

There is often a fine line between tough enforcement and targeting. On a recent visit to a homeless shelter, I heard men complain they are being unfairly rousted. But during another visit to a tough neighborhood near downtown, I heard one neighborhood leader, a black man, complain that when police roust loiterers they are accused of racial profiling.

Councilman Hall said he wanted his proposal to produce “dialogue.”

It looks like we’ll have something to talk about in the near future.


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