Over the past several years we’ve had occasion time and again to turn to Bernard Harcourt, Professor of Law and Director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, for increased understanding of the policing of behavior, the “freedom” of markets, and the intertwining of the two. Harcourt is an authority on “broken windows” policing, a strategy based on the notion that attending to small violations—jaywalking, loitering, etc.—can somehow reduce the more serious and even violent crimes that we most care about. As Harcourt and others have shown, not only is there no reliable evidence for the policy’s efficacy, it also is an invitation to target people of color and lower-income citizens.
The approach stems from a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, but in public discourse it’s likely most associated with the NYC mayoral tenure of Rudy Giuliani. Under Michael Bloomberg the city made an aggressive turn to Stop and Frisk, a broken windows-style tactic that made its racial profiling explicit. When Bill de Blasio took office having pledged to overhaul the practice, he reinstated former NYPD Commissioner and broken windows advocate William J. Bratton, who reintroduced the more subtly biased broken windows policy as a disappointingly transparent replacement for the plainly racist Stop and Frisk.
Now, with much of the nation incensed over the failure to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—each of whom died in encounters rooted in overzealous policing of minor offenses—broken windows is again in the spotlight. And so last week Bernard Harcourt joined MSNBC’s Morning Joe for a discussion of the tactic and his 2001 book, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing:
Harcourt has also compiled important fact sheets on the grand juries considering the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, helping to demystify processes whose secrecy serves to exacerbate their perceived miscarriage of justice.