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"Broken Windows" Reconsidered
Posted 04/29/2015 08:22AM

Yale Law Professor Tracey L. Meares, center, with students after her talk


Tracey L. Meares told Riverdale juniors and seniors on Monday that an interdisciplinary approach is needed to develop new policing strategies that both reduce crime and build trust between police departments and communities.

Meares, a professor at Yale Law School, is an expert on criminal procedure and police policy and practices. A member of the 11-person President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, she also is an authority on the “broken windows” theory of community policing, which was put forward in the 1980s and adopted by many major cities, including New York.

The “broken windows” theory emphasizes enforcement of misdemeanors as a deterrent to major crime. Proponents believe that by keeping neighborhoods orderly, individuals will behave in a more orderly way. But Meares said the theory failed to take into account conflicting perceptions and racist attitudes of different segments of society, and the emotional expectations of individuals who come into contact with law enforcement.

In New York, for example, arrest statistics indicate that “broken windows” policing was carried out disproportionately in poor and minority neighborhoods. The tactics did not produce a significant reduction in major crimes. Moreover, in numerous instances across the country in the last year, arrests for misdemeanors quickly escalated into violence, resulting in the high-profile deaths of a number of young African-American men.

Meares explained that criminal justice owes its framework to what she called a “curriculum”: the laws, court cases, operating procedures, etc., that lay out the permissible conduct for police and citizens. Yet there is what she called a “hidden curriculum” of social behaviors and perceptions that affect how police, neighborhoods, and individuals interact, and that have contributed to the escalation of violence during some routine arrests.

She said that her research on procedural justice shows that people want police to treat them with dignity and respect. They want the criminal justice system to give an opportunity to tell their side of the story. “People care more about how they are treated than the particular outcomes,” she said.

She described three recommendations that the commission made to President Obama. First, she said, the mentality of law enforcement needs to change. Officers need to view themselves as “guardians instead of warriors.” Police actions escalate when officers fear their lives are in jeopardy even if there is no evidence of a threat. Police procedures and training need to support this more humane approach.

Secondly, law enforcement needs to align what she calls the “overt curriculum” with the “hidden curriculum” by taking into account the human need for dignity and respect and recognizing how racial attitudes can affect perceptions of order. Laws, procedures, data, and social science all come into play to ensure that police authority is executed appropriately.

She said police training needs to encompass social science and psychology and move away from an emphasis on potential threats to an officer's life. "Police training since the '70s assumed that in any interaction with the public, a police officer could die. That's why you heard the officer in South Carolina say, ‘I was in fear of my life.’ They are trained that way ... I think that when you are trained that way, that training shapes the culture, the attitudes."

Attitudes are not "hard-wired," she said. Training and rules of governance can reshape the mindset of the law enforcement.

Third, she said police institutions must “acknowledge their roles in past wrongs and discrimination.”

She spoke of how Congressman John Lewis was beaten badly by Alabama State Troopers in 1964 as he marched across the Pettus Bridge in Selma on “Bloody Sunday.” Two years ago, the police chief of Birmingham gave Lewis his badge and apologized. “He wanted John to accept the badge and even wear it as a reminder of what policing was supposed to be about.”

In response to a question about what young people can do to bring about change, she said: “The answer to that question will be found in you all sitting together and finding out what matters to you.”

At Riverdale, she said, “an important aspect of the education is to get you all to think more broadly and not just about your own personal advancement. When you stand up for reform you are standing up for the highest ideals.”

She continued: “It is critical that this happens. Most people aren’t as lucky as you are. They live in communities where there is high crime. They need the protection of the police. If we cannot find a way to ensure that they can avail themselves of that protection, then we are not doing our duty as citizens.”


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