The Catastrophe of “Broken Windows” Policing

By Mark Naison

As I struggle  to come to terms with the untimely death of Walter Scott, shot in the back while running away from a police officer after a dispute over a faulty tail light,  I suddenly came to a startling and disturbing realization: Walter Scott was the fourth unarmed African American man I know of whose killing by a police officer in a highly publicized case came over a minor violation that could easily have been overlooked rather than a major crime. 

The first of these deaths, that of Bronx teenager Ramarley Graham, took place three years ago, when narcotics officers, suspecting him of possessing marijuana, chased him into his family’s home in the North Bronx and shot him to death in the bathroom, with his grandmother watching. That anyone is even being arrested for marijuana possession represents questionable policy; that they should be killed by law enforcement during such an arrest is unimaginable. But it did happen, leading to the Graham family winning a 4 million dollar wrongful death suit against the city of New York.

Next came the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. Much attention has been directed at Michael Brown’s role in a dispute at a convenience store shortly before his death, but when Officer Wilson decided to approach Michael Brown and his friend, it was for what we in New York call “jaywalking”. None of the tragic events that followed would have taken place had  not Officer Wilson decided to challenge the two young men for walking in the middle of the street on a little traveled residential block.

That this was a subject for police intervention could easily be questioned; that it led to the death of an unarmed young man is as unfathomable as it is awful.

The final death is that of Eric Garner. Mr Garner’s death came after police confronted him for selling “lucies” ( illegally acquired cigarrettes) on the street.  Here is another case where police could easily have overlooked the offending action, as the person committing the offense was unarmed, and not causing harm to anyone else.

Let’s look at all these cases in tandem. Ramarely Graham, killed for possessing marijuana. Michael Brown, killed for jaywalking,

Eric Garner, killed for selling illegal cigarettes.  Walter Scott, killed for an out of operation tail light.

There are many questions we can and should ask about how the race of these individuals factored into their deaths, but we also need to interrogate the strategy of law enforcement they reflect- namely “Broken Windows policing.” Should the police be confronting and arresting people for minor breaches of the law and prepared to use deadly force in such incident? Should police officers be rated on the number of such arrests so their careers depend on making them? And should muncipalities depend on the fines that result from such arrests as sources of revenue?

Dealing with internalized as well as overt racial biases is something all of us- not only police offiers- should be doing. But if we want to reduce police/community tensions, we may want to rethink how police are deployed and move away from “Broken Windows Policing” to strategies which are less rigid and more community oriented.

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