Broken Windows, Broken Cops

Brain Dropping #115

Broken windows, Broken Cops.    In criminology the “Broken Windows Theory” is a concept of setting social norms.  It assumes that monitoring and prosecuting small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, toll jumping, windshield squeegeeing, loud gatherings in the street, littering, etc. will maintain social order. If a broken window goes unrepaired others will be broken, leading to increased vandalism, anti-social behavior and ultimately metastasizing into more serious crime and disorder.  This form of policing was put into practice by the autocratic Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani and his Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, resulting in a huge uptick in the prison population of mostly low income folks of color.  Eric Garner’s murder by police was precipitated by just such a minor violation – selling single cigarettes on the street – hardly a major source of disruption.  The unconstitutional “Stop & Frisk” program of racial profiling was another variant of the Broken Window imperative.  The operational idea behind this “big brother” form of social control is to suppress negative behavior modeling – to quash bad examples which might inspire other desperate people to become copy-cats.   This policy of law enforcement also engenders a two tiered system of justice –  severe enforcement for ordinary, working class folks, and looking the other way when members of the elite break the law.  In your wildest imaginings can you see a loud, disruptive, drunken group of fat-cats coming out of the Waldorf Astoria being hassled by the cops?

Let’s open the discussion to a broader purview – the militarization of local police forces and the brutality of their methods – U.S. Army half tracks, grenade launchers, concussion grenades, AK47s muzzles pointed at peaceful demonstrators, water canons, rubber bullets, tear gas and SWAT teams, dressed as for an invasion of a terrorist camp, called out for ridiculously minor infractions.  The shoot-first-ask-questions-later actions of trigger-happy cops, has resulted in the unconscionable deaths of many unarmed young people of color.  If the purpose of the Broken Window Theory in practice, is to prevent growing social  chaos caused by copy-cat behavior triggered by destructive modeling, where does the modeling for the overly brutal and belligerent police departments come from?  In a society interconnected by technology, where very little escapes being promulgated electronically – or as they say “going viral,” patterns of behavior have enormous power to persuade.

Say I’m a cop!  Everyday on the news I see our government condoning criminal behavior – torture, murder by drone, kidnapping (extraordinary rendition) in violation of international law, in the name of security for the American people.  President Obama has a “kill list!”  He claims he can rightly target American citizens and murder them without  “due process”- without trial – without charges brought against them – without any oversight – purely on the basis of his personal say so.  All in the name of protecting the “Homeland!”  In the precinct station, my fellow police officers and I, see on the TV monitor the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder, admit publicly that Wall Street crooks can steal with impunity, that he will not prosecute them because they are “too big to jail!”  I constantly hear twisted justifications for extra-legal actions coming from respected leaders.  Surely, if the highest authority in the land can circumvent the law, go over the edge and commit what amounts to the murder of innocent civilians, to “protect our precious land,” why should I, as a peace officer, with the same task before me, allow the letter and spirit of the law stay my hand to maintain law and order?  The modeling from our country’s leaders is clear – forget the spirit and letter of the law, do whatever you have to do, the system will  protect you and mete out no punishment.

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