Law and Disorder: A View on Broken Windows from Journal Square

Print More
Journal Square in Jersey City.

Photo by: Jim Henderson

Journal Square in Jersey City.

For the past quarter-century, debates about policing in America have focused largely on New York City. And with some very good reasons: for starters, it is, by far, the largest city in the United States; in recent decades, rates of various crimes in the city have declined by historically unprecedented proportions; and the city has served as something of a laboratory for various policing strategies, including the “Broken Windows” strategy and the mass “stop-and-frisk” policy carried out under the direction of former-mayor Michael Bloomberg and ex-police commissioner Ray Kelly.

But other cities, big and small, might also have something to say about the origins of crime and safety; some of the evidence from beyond the five boroughs might even challenge assumptions about what has made the Big Apple safer over the past 20 years. One needn’t go far to see what a different approach to law and order looks like: One instance is in a city separated from the island of Manhattan only by a narrow stretch of the Hudson River, in a space that, as the crow flies, sits just a couple of miles away from the West Village.

The space is known to many as simply “the square”: shorthand for “Journal Square,” the name of the highly-diverse and densely-populated neighborhood in Jersey City in which the square is situated, as well as the name given to the train station and transportation center that draws tens of thousands of people to the space just about every day.

The square is also located approximately seven miles—or about a half-hour drive—from Tompkinsville, the Staten Island neighborhood where, a couple of months ago, four NYPD officers approached Eric Garner, ostensibly for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes—or “loosies”—a fairly common hustle for chronically out-of-work African-American men who live out their days “on the streets” of postindustrial American cities. The encounter ended with Garner’s death. As video footage of the incident shows, within a matter of seconds after Garner pleaded to simply be left alone, the officers—five of them ultimately—wrestled the 43 year-old man to the pavement where he lived out his last moments on earth, pleading over and over again, to no avail: “I can’t breathe.”

During the course of nearly three years-worth of intensive ethnographic research in the square, I met and got to know many men who were, in certain respects, a lot like Garner. Like Garner, many of the men who routinely spent time in the square were middle-aged African-American men without jobs and without many, if any, other options for places to simply “be” during the day. Like Garner, they often hustled to make a few dollars here and there, sometimes by engaging in marginally illegal behaviors like selling “loosies.” And like Garner’s loosie trade, the illegal activities of the men (and women) who, aptly enough, referred to themselves and each other as square’s “regulars,” did no direct harm—and certainly no violence—to others.

As I came to learn over time, even in the stickiest of situations, I rarely had cause to be concerned for my own personal safety in part because some of the regulars looked out for me, but also because the only real harm that the regulars did to anyone was to themselves. During the course of my research, at least eight of the square’s regulars died early deaths, including two men who I came to know well. Medically speaking, they died from abusing their substances of choice a bit too much: alcohol, heroin, pills, and, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure the precise substance much matters. These deaths were the worst of what I encountered in the square, not murders, rapes, robberies, or other serious crimes—and certainly not a problem that aggressive order-maintenance policing or any other criminal justice response would be fit to solve—at least not in any remotely humane way.

The question that begs addressing is why the police or anyone else should ever aggressively police the likes of people who not only are “down and out,” but are doing nothing to directly harm others? Why create a situation of humiliation, tension, and hostility—the very kind of situation that led to Garner’s death—unless it is truly necessary? If only in one in a thousand instances, the circumstances are such that in such degrading and antagonistic encounters they result in death or serious injury, is that not one time too many? Or if all that results is humiliation and hostility, don’t these costs alone outweigh whatever benefits might conceivably come from cracking down on offenses like selling loosies?

To be fair, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio have acknowledged, albeit barely, that Garner’s death should have been avoided. In Bratton’s view, however, the problem is merely one of inadequate police training. Perhaps more training might help, but the much more plausible theory in my estimation is reflected in the protest that Garner registered before he was wrestled to the ground and choked to death: “I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today . . . Just leave me alone.” The problem that Garner’s protest reflects is not one that can be adequately solved through more or better training. It is a much more fundamental problem, having to do with, among other things, the proper limits of state power and the morality of using the violence of the state to contend with behaviors that do not directly harm others, much less do violence to others.

As I see it, contrary to what many supporters and critics of the NYPD have suggested over the past couple of months, the problem that led to the death of Eric Garner was not rogue cops. The problem is a policy that is wrong—both morally and empirically.

Contrary to popular belief, the “theory” of “Broken Windows” did not originally amount to much of a theory at all, certainly not as its progenitors—George Kelling and James Q. Wilson—first articulated it. In short, Kelling and Wilson did not say, as critics and proponents of “Broken Windows Theory” alike have often claimed, that “disorder” necessarily and inevitably leads to more “disorder,” which, in turn, inevitably and necessarily leads to serious crime. They merely said, plausibly enough, that increasing levels of “disorder” may eventually lead to the proliferation of serious crime. They failed, however, to specify the precise conditions under which “disorder” will or won’t lead to serious crime and thus, ultimately, really didn’t offer us a theory so much as they did a slogan. More to the point, as a normative matter, if all we are talking about is what could happen, rather than what will necessarily happen as the result of “disorderly” deeds, the fundamental problem remains: how can we justify using the violence of the state to deal with behaviors that are not themselves violent and are not calculated to do anyone harm and may not, moreover, ever even so much as indirectly cause anyone any appreciable harm?

Given that nothing less than the liberty and personal security of human beings are at stake, the onus lies squarely with Bratton and others who have made strong claims about the connection between disorder and serious crime to substantiate them. That has never happened. Some studies arguably show a linkage between disorder and serious crime in certain places at certain times. Many studies show no linkage at all. No study has ever shown anything like a necessary relationship. Nor has any study ever shown that other measures (e.g., social services) would not “fix broken windows” just as well, if not better, than any aggressive policing strategy or criminal justice intervention could ever hope to accomplish.

And then there is the square. Not long ago, the political scientist Wesley Skogan claimed that researchers have yet to identify any “high-disorder, low-crime” spaces. Whether or not Skogan was right (and I doubt he was), the square certainly counts as one such space. For many years before, during, and since the time of my research in the square, the space has served as something of a de facto refuge for some of the very poorest of Jersey City’s poorest residents, many of whom, during the course of my research, consistently engaged in precisely the types of behaviors that preoccupy proponents of aggressive order-maintenance policing strategies. And yet the rate of serious crime in the square was—and remains to this day—very low. Much as many people may not like who or what they see in the square, it is undoubtedly a safe space. I know this from experience and it is also borne out in the city’s official crime statistics.

I am not arguing that policing doesn’t matter or that it is only ever counter-productive. To the contrary, I found that the sheer presence of the police in the square was critical to ensuring the safety of the space. At the same time, in sharp contrast to the aggressive policing strategies that are rationalized according to the dubious logic of Broken Windows, I also found that effective policing worked primarily through establishing relationships with people, through understanding, through tact, and through negotiation. Training may help to cultivate these virtues, but they will count for little if police officers are required, in the end, to aggressively police low-level offenders.

To be sure, the square was no “rose garden.” Police abuses occurred and disorder occasionally escalated to a point that had me wondering, even by my admittedly liberal standards, whether police intervention, and perhaps even an arrest, might be in order. For the most part, though, while life in the square was far from perfect, disorder did not lead to serious crime.

And just as importantly, the police hardly ever enforced order—or needed to—through brute force or through the threat of brute force. That is the very kind of force that left Eric Garner dead.