Fixing ‘Broken Windows’ Policing to Make It Work for Latin America.
By Michael J. Jenkins, Michael Allison, March 12, 2015, Briefing
Of the 10 countries with the highest homicide rates, eight are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region is likewise home to 34 of the world’s 50 most violent cities. The social and economic impacts of those levels of crime are massive, and, as a result, governments and private sectors in Mexico, Brazil and, more recently, Guatemala and El Salvador are looking for new solutions. They have sought advice from two familiar sources in American policing: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and current New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton.
Giuliani, and even more so Bratton, are known for their application of the “broken windows” model of policing that many credit with helping to reduce crime across much of the United States over the past 20 years. If done properly and in combination with other reforms—such as purging corrupt police officers and members of the judiciary and adopting management models of accountability like CompStat, the computerized system developed in New York to track crime and officers’ beats—the broken windows model of policing can contribute to improving the security situation in Latin America.
Broken windows policing is based on a theory expounded by two college professors, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, in an article in The Atlantic in 1982. Kelling and Wilson connected smaller acts of public disorder, like graffiti and public drinking, to more serious crime. Bratton and his disciples spread these policing methods across the U.S., implementing them most prominently in New York City in the early 1990s, where levels of crime and disorder plummeted. Today, crime rates in U.S. cities, many of which used some form of the broken windows policing, including Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, are nearing 50-year lows.
That track record has prompted Latin American cities, like Mexico City in 2003, to adopt broken windows policing and others, like Bogota and Guatemala City, to consider it. But to understand the promise and the pitfalls of this approach, it is important to clarify what broken windows is—and is not—and to address some challenges in putting it into action in the region.
The main thrust of broken windows policing is that police cooperate with local communities to define the problems that concern them and to create appropriate responses. In the more infamous applications of broken windows tactics, police stop, question and sometimes frisk citizens on the basis of reasonable suspicion that the citizen is, has been or might be involved in some lower-level offense. These interactions are meant to deter more serious criminal behavior by showing that police are paying attention to an area and by uncovering evidence of more serious wrongdoing.
The policy was implemented in New York City during the past decade, but came under fire for disproportionally targeting minorities. It has now effectively been eliminated under Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio. The police-involved homicides of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City spurred more critics of broken windows policing to point out the disparate impact it has on racial minorities, the seeming lack of discretion that officers use when pursuing low-level offenses and the tactic’s inability to take into account the root causes of criminal behavior.
Latin America can learn from these criticisms. To be effective, policing must adjust to conditions at the local level as much as possible, rather than trying to impose national-level solutions. For instance, in El Salvador and Guatemala, government and private sector initiatives have recently sought to contract with Giuliani Partners, the former New York mayor’s security consulting business. Both countries are plagued by some of the region’s highest levels of violence, often caused by some combination of drug trafficking, gang activity, death squads, organized crime and domestic violence. Yet 30 percent and 38 percent respectively of the two countries’ municipalities actually experienced zero homicides through much of this year—likely due, at least in Guatemala, to strong community ties in indigenous municipalities. Clearly, policing models in these areas should be significantly different from those in high-violence municipalities.
Similarly, the application of a broken windows approach will have to be sensitive to socio-economic conditions and the racial and ethnic compositions of communities. Racial and ethnic minorities—and in some cases majorities—have frequently suffered repression at the hands of the state across Latin America. Police must work with each community to find the proper balance between intervening to prevent violent crime and upholding the rights of those subjected to the police methods.
A related issue is that of zero tolerance or “mano dura” policing, which is mistakenly conflated with broken windows. Where it has been adopted in Latin America, zero tolerance policing has a poor record, especially in Central America. The same approach has also been problematic in the U.S. Even so, zero tolerance policing can be the best way to combat certain kinds of crime, especially with such entrenched levels of violence.
To do so, however, zero tolerance policing must also include zero tolerance for police corruption and impunity. For this kind of policing to have a chance at succeeding in Guatemala City or San Salvador, where police have track records of abuse, or in Rio de Janeiro, which has hired Giuliani as a consultant ahead of the 2016 Olympics, corrupt police officials must be purged, hiring and retention procedures improved, individual salaries increased and sufficient resources provided. Zero tolerance must work both ways for the police and the community to trust each other and work effectively toward improving security.
Finally, a lot of crime and disorder in Latin American cities stem from root causes that range from concentrated poverty to a lack of education or employment. However, police are limited in what they can do to ameliorate those conditions. Moreover, the increase in crime and general disorder only exacerbates these root causes of criminal behavior, by limiting the legitimate use of public spaces for business and social opportunities.
Like zero tolerance approaches, broken windows policing is no substitute for equitable economic growth, good governance, criminal justice reform and increased spending on social programs. But it can serve as one avenue for preventing disorderly conditions from giving rise to more crime. Any police department hoping to use broken windows policing to create safer neighborhoods should be mindful of these challenges. However, this apprehension should not preclude the use of such proven policing methods. Latin American cities can benefit from broken windows policing, but only if they also integrate the lessons learned from its application in the U.S.
Michael J. Jenkins is assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton and co-author of a book on urban policing titled “Police Leaders in the New Community Problem-Solving Era” (Carolina Academic Press, 2015).
Mike Allison is associate professor of political science at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and maintains the Central American Politics blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @CentAmPolMike.