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The Man Who Helped Popularize Broken Windows Policing Steps Down

A quick look at the tactics Bill Bratton championed in New York and Los Angeles.

By Francie Diep


New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced today that he’ll beresigning next month, ending a long and influential career in policing America’s biggest cities, most notably in New York and Los Angeles. His tactics played an important part in how American law enforcement operates today — and what activists like those with Black Lives Matter hope to overhaul.

Bratton first served as New York City police commissioner in the 1990s, then as Los Angeles’ police commissioner from 2002 to 2009. He returned to New York in 2014. Throughout his career, Bratton has advocated for so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on minor crimes, such as riding a bike on the sidewalk, or dodging subway fees. The theory is that keeping neighborhoods orderly serves to deter more serious crime from taking root. Critics say broken windows policing leads officers to use excessive force and unfairly affects Americans of color. Bratton continues to defend the practice, telling National Public Radio in 2015, “It’s what made this city safe in the first place.”

What does the research say?

Overall, the evidence points to broken windows policing being modestly effective, according to a meta-analysis published this year. What matters is how it’s used. It works better when it’s part of a community-oriented, problem-solving law enforcement approach, according to the analysis. When it’s used as an aggressive, “zero tolerance” policy, broken windows can breed tension and work against itself.

Broken windows policing hinges on the idea that, when things look neat in the streets, residents get out, spend time in the neighborhood, and create a sense of community where people are willing to apply social pressure to one another to reduce violence. Overly aggressive law enforcement undermines that kind of social control.