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Five Book Plan: Broken Windows Policing

Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp present their top five books on broken windows policing.

Jordan Camp, Christina Heatherton25 May 2016

"William Bratton, New York City's Top Cop." The January 15, 1996 cover of Time Magazine.

1. Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge, 1996).

Neil Smith's landmark text is a peerless primer for understanding “broken windows policing” as it came to prominence in New York City in the 1990s. Smith’s central concept is “revanchism,” from the French term for revenge. The term denotes a visceral turn in neoliberal political discourse. Smith describes how popular rage against the economic crisis, state retraction, rising unemployment, wage stagnation, and diminished political power was successfully parleyed into a populist struggle to reclaim public space. Under this logic, the racialized poor, working class, homeless, queer, and immigrant populations were all imagined as having stolen space and power away from its rightful owners. Broken windows policing and quality of life campaigns took shape against these populations within this vengeful atmosphere. Smith subsequently elaborated his analysis of zero tolerance policing in “Giuliani Times: The Revanchist 1990s,” a 1998 Social Text article which examined how then mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police commissioner William Bratton sustained a whole-scale restructuring of public policy and urban space through policing strategy. Both pieces are particularly timely given the revanchist spirit animating Trump’s campaign and his promise to “Make America Great Again.” (While Smith often critiqued the use of space as a metaphor, scholars have helpfully expanded Smith’s critique of gentrification and the “frontier” beyond metaphor to also encompass ongoing urban struggles against settler colonialism.)

2. Samuel Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

William Bratton has staked his reputation on the “turnaround” of New York City, transforming purportedly violent places of disorder into family-friendly tourist destinations of Applebee’s and “Wicked” matinees. If Times Square is the proverbial proving ground of “broken-windows policing,” Delany’s book is the necessary rebuttal. In this celebrated text, part academic reflection, part memoir, Delany recounts his three decades living in the area and bears witness to the ravages of its “redevelopment.” The book astutely observes how sociality is produced through space and how class war can be waged through the built environment. He compares the redevelopment to a Baron Haussmann-like event, entailing the destruction of physical space and the death of a “complex of social practices.” He refashions core concepts of Jane Jacobs’ much-heralded The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describing a range of interclass “contacts” and the web of social bonds they produce. Unlike Jacobs, Delaney prominently includes sex – public sex and casual sex – within this range of accepted practices. He notes that, “contact is also the intercourse – physical and conversational – that bloom in and as casual sex.” While the justification for the policing and redevelopment of Times Square hinged on moral panics around such practices and the queer cultures that encouraged them, Delany relocates the production of insecurity in the “economic attack of the developers.” He demonstrates how developers sold the idea of security while designing spaces that actually encouraged “isolation, inhumanity, and violence.” In this austere environment, Delaney shows how broken windows policing claimed its most hollow victory.

3. Christina Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

In this careful study, Christina Hanhardt offers a queer history of LGBT activism in the context of gentrification and policing in New York City and San Francisco from the 1960s to the present. While foregrounding the policing of working class queer communities of color, Hanhardt simultaneously considers the “promotion and protection of gay neighborhoods” in order to trace the resulting race and class stratifications. With equal measures of sensitivity and rigor, the book describes how appeals to safety and protection from violence  – the production of “safe space” in formally gay neighborhoods – often abetted the criminalization of the racialized poor. In this way, Hanhardt demonstrates how patterns of divestment and reinvestment entailed selective appeals to safety alongside selective practices of policing and displacement. Hanhardt brilliantly shows how urban social science ideas about poverty, violence, and homophobia converged with the emergence of “community policing,” convergences of policy and theory which continue to have pernicious effects in the present. While critical, the book is not merely critique. It powerfully illuminates how radical LGBT groups such as FIERCE have fought for decades to offer alternative visions of security; ones premised on large-scale social and political transformation. In doing so the book offers an original and generative framework for analyzing the articulation between race, gender, sexuality, and political economy; a vital analysis for activists seeking to fix broken windows without batons.  

4. Bernard Harcourt, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

This is the book that debunked the broken windows metaphor. Bernard Harcourt’s original and invaluable study illuminates the empirical and theoretical flaws of broken windows or “order-maintenance policing.” It demonstrates a total absence of evidentiary basis supporting the claim that Bratton style broken windows policing has led to declining rates of crime. Drawing on social science data, Harcourt proves that the theory is factually incorrect and that such policing led neither to a decline in crime rates nor to improvements in the “quality” of urban life. While many supporters have argued that broken windows policing serves as an alternative to more aggressive forms of punishment and control, Harcourt shows how such policing serves instead as a robust supplement to mass incarceration. Harcourt’s argument was so compelling, many of the key architects and proponents of the broken windows theory were forced to respond to it in print. While a lack of facts has never prevented popular theory from operating as if it were true, Harcourt’s work continues to disrupt the durable common-sense of broken windows policing.

5. Andrea Mcardle and Tanya Erzen, eds., Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

Andrea Mcardle and Tanya Erzen edited this critical anthology to document the consolidation of zero tolerance policing in New York City during the 1990s and the activist movements that confronted it. This incredible volume features the work of scholars, lawyers, activists, and journalists including Derrick Bell, Dayo F. Gore, Paul Hoffman, Andrew Hsiao, Tamara Jones, Joo-Hyun Kang, Andrew Ross, Eric Tang, and Sasha Torres. For present day activists who have been motivated to respond to the NYPD killings of Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley, the book offers a valuable resource chronicling an earlier wave of activism. These earlier campaigns also were sparked by the police killings and assaults on people like Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Anthony Bae, and many others. Organizers from these campaigns, as well as the mothers of many of these victims, are still active in movements at present. Then as now, readers will learn how “quality of life” policing was directed against the racialized poor, homeless, LGBT communities, gender-nonconforming people, and Black and Latino youth. Then as now, readers will also learn how such policies falsely linked authoritarian policing to crime rate reductions. Finally, readers might find the greatest resonance in discussions of the global export of policies, practices, and legitimating logics. The present day struggle against broken windows policing can only be strengthened through such history and analysis.

Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp are the editors of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, a new collection of writing against broken windows policing and its global spread by activists, scholars, and artists.

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