Broken Windows, From the My Little Pony Perspective

So what if guys like Radley Balko and me were writing about this while lawprofs were on summer vacation?  After all, we’re not the deep thinkers worthy of note by serious scholars.  Even lawprof Jonathan Turley, who had the audacity to win big on polygamy while his brethren were picking out their favorite tea, was in on the deal, but wasn’t worth mentioning.

What?  It started at PrawfsBlawg, with lawprof Howard Wasserman free-riding the coattails of Cornell lawprof Mike Dorf, with the Wass-man noting “Mike share [sic] my view that cameras are a good idea but not a panacea.”  Bold move, guys, hopping on the caboose of cutting-edge thought.

But the Wass-man notes Dorf’s views on Broken Windows, and that’s where the uptown D goes off the tracks and crashes on 161st Street.

The most well-known attempt to implement broken-windows policing occurred during the NYC Mayoral administration of Rudy Giuliani. He cracked down on “squeegee men”–who “cleaned” windshields of motorists stopped at traffic lights, sometimes with an implicit threat of damage to the car or worse if drivers did not agree to pay for this ostensible service; he went after graffiti artists; he targeted subway fare-beating. And–according to the proponents of the broken windows theory–it worked. The nation as a whole experienced a substantial drop in violent crime from the peaks of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the drop in crime in New York City was substantially larger.

Oy.  First, the “squeegee men” problem was a stand alone issue, having nothing to do with Broken Windows. Correlation does not prove causation, Mike.  But then you conflate problems, and causes, that no one who was around, and had a clue at the time, would endure.  I realize that things look different when reading scholarly sanitized versions of reality, but they just ain’t real, bro.

If you ever rode the D train to the Bronx Criminal Courthouse, you would ride past burned out building after burned out building, every window broken, covered in graffiti. The Bronx looked like a war zone, and indeed it was. This was the age of crack, and it left its mark.

Broken Windows had nothing to do with crushing the crack epidemic. That happened post-Mistretta, when the feds started prosecuting state court street level drug cases, but using the draconian Sentencing Guidelines.  The sentences were so harsh, and certainty of conviction so high, that second string lawyers were running their clients down to 1 St. Andrews Plaza to beat the rush and rat out everyone they knew and a few they didn’t.  It was a constitutional fiasco, but very effective.

They took out the extant drug organizations, the ones who kept their neighborhoods under control. These organizations were run like businesses. They knew the benefits of keeping people quiet and happy, and keeping the cops away.  But they were quickly crushed by the feds, torn apart and left a huge gaping void in the drug trade.

The void was immediately filled by young Turks, who lacked both the business acumen and discretion of their predecessors. Instead, they fought over turf and business, and, essentially overnight, violence in the streets was commonplace.  These guys were brutes, and they destroyed their neighborhoods.

They were also flashes in the pan, quickly taken out by the feds because they were so obvious and violent. And then a new gang would rush in, even more dangerous and violent than the one before.  And when they were taken down, they too would flip. Ironically, they made a lot of money on drugs very quickly, and usually didn’t have a dime for lawyers when they were nailed. They wasted it on nonsense like clothing, cars and jewelry. They wore their earnings to show off on the street, like the comical pimps of the 70’s.

In this alternative view, the key was New York’s mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for carrying an unlicensed firearm (in combination with very restrictive gun licensing policies). Prior to broken windows policing, a young man living in a dangerous neighborhood in NYC might typically go out armed, even if he was not a serious criminal. But knowing that the odds of an arrest for some minor offense (like fare-beating) went up under the new policing policy, he would leave his gun at home, for fear that a minor ticket would turn into a substantial prison sentence following the stop-and-frisk. Thus, with fewer guns on the street, there was less violence.

By “alternative view,” I suppose you mean absurd academic fantasy view, right? I know how you guys like to screw with words, so that’s cool as long as we’re both talking about the same thing.

Back then, it got violent in the nasty neighborhoods, and so the drug dealers had guns to fight with their rivals, while non-dealers had guns because they would get slaughtered if they were caught in the crossfire.  At the time, state law allowed for probation for simple possession of a weapon by someone with no priors, and we would walk ‘em in and walk ‘em out.

Raising the sentence for possession of a gun to mandatory prison was a reaction to the constant violence in the street.  This was the impetus for programs like “Clean Halls” in the Bronx, where every person going into a tenement would be searched for drugs and guns.  Fare-beating was nothing at the time, as a subway ride was still around $1 back then, and most of the people who rode the subway had jobs (school kids got passes). People didn’t bring guns to their jobs. It was frowned upon.

So Bratton’s Broken Windows rode the coattails of the effectiveness of the Sentencing Guidelines, cleaning up the mess left behind after most males in their 20’s were convicted and begging for 5k1.1 letters.  It cleaned up the general attitude that the city was in tatters that flowed from the neglect and violence of the crack epidemic, and served to some extent to stem the sense of hopelessness that pervaded the nasty neighborhoods of New York City for those who tried to lead law-abiding lives among the chaos, though ironically they bore the brunt of harsh police engagement, because the really bad guys were in the middle of the street shooting at each other.

Now I realize, Mike, that all the reality stuff wouldn’t fit in with the scholarish “professional criminologist” theories used to explain how Broken Windows happened, and that all the other lawprofs would laugh at you if you used actual history to make your point.  So we’ll just keep this between us, and you can go on pretending that you and the Wass-man came up with these ideas all by yourselves.  We’re cool. I just wanted you to know.

4 comments on “Broken Windows, From the My Little Pony Perspective

  1. Sgt. Schultz

    IIRC, there was a time when there was just the tiniest bit of interaction between lawyers and academics, but it didn’t last long. Lawyers didn’t play by their rules of “civility,” and kept calling their babies ugly. They were deeply offended. And connecting with lawyers gave them no prominence, unlike, say, being quoted in the dopiest Slate article ever.

    Too bad. Lawyers could use a little theory to flesh out new ideas, and lawprofs could certainly use a dip in the lawyer’s pool of reality.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are still a few who are more interested in substance than tone or self-aggrandizement, but not many. Not enough.

    1. SHG Post author

      Everybody with a horse in the race has put their effort into using whatever data they can find to support whatever outcome most benefits them. So as to gentrification, not that I know of. It needs a better lobby.

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