Against “Broken Windows” Policing: A Response to George Kelling

George Kelling, one of the two criminologists to craft the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing has an article up on Politico, that increasingly neoliberal online mag, arguing that his theory has been a success, and where it hasn’t, that failure is due to the community under siege not coming to police itself. Bull.

Rather than attend to the public crisis caused by rampant neoliberal non-governing on the social well-being of poor communities, ‘broken windows’ policing encourages police to go after the victims of deregulated corporate capitalism. If such policing does decrease crime, and studies are mixed on this though Kelling, himself employed by a conservative think-tank, points to a single study by a professor at the neocon think-tank Harvard University, that’s besides the point of the critique – critics of ‘broken windows’ policing are concerned with whether it is fair to lock up victims of the policies of under-investment in the social, economic and political structures of community. Money would be better spent investing in education and jobs rather than militarized police forces. This latter point gets to why policed communities do not feel the need to police themselves – because the only investment in their community is in militarized police forces they have few other civic pillars to build this sense of communal responsibility on. More importantly, police employing ‘broken windows’ style policing techniques are so thorough in throwing everyone in jail for municipality fee income and the overtime pay that comes with filing booking paperwork that there’s hardly any community left over after the roving arrest squads to repair the windows broken, the ones broken by the frustrated community members, and the ones broken by the outsiders that rip the members from their communities.

Still, the most frustrating paragraph of the article comes near the end when Kelling writes, “It is axiomatic that in a democracy citizens must govern themselves; if they govern themselves, they must also police themselves.” This is a shallow understanding of democracy, one that is more libertarian and anarchistic than legitimate versions of democracy, but even taking this shallow understanding for granted, that poor communities should police themselves does not follow, precisely because these communities do not truly govern themselves, the lack of investment in their community was a deliberate attempt to deny them political power for self-governance. Kelling and his neoliberal cohort want to blame the victims for what failed policy has done to them. Do not fall for it. We need to give political powers back to these communities and one important way, suggested most recently by Glen Ford from BlackAgendaReport.com is to give direct oversight and control of police departments to the policed communities, giving them final authority on appointing the commissioner and approving the budget.

It’s worth noting that Politico, seemingly trying to corner the market for pro-aggressive policing opinion pieces, yesterday released an article wherein Sarah Kendzior bemoaned the racial tensions in Ferguson but decried the presence of “professional activists” as distorting the peacemaking process. Kendzior decides that this is a local problem and is one for the people of Ferguson to work out, and because thinks are quite bleak, she concludes that we have to resign ourselves to a lack of policing reform. But this is not a local problem, it is a national problem, it is just most visible in Ferguson in the moment, so this provides no reason for activists concerned about police relations with black communities to be uninvolved. The piece, and Politico must be held responsible for this, means to divide a popular movement fighting for the improvement of the lives of poor black folks. Attempting to break up and undermine this movement is despicable, and further reveals Politico to be a neoliberal think-tank bought by the corporatists on Wall Street who want to drum up support for police forces that put down popular uprisings.

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