Broken Windows and Depersonalization

At the funeral of Eric Garner, Al Sharpton said,

“Let’s not play games with this one. You don’t need no training to stop choking a man saying ‘I can’t breathe’ You don’t need no cultural orientation to stop choking a man saying ‘I can’t breathe.’ You need to be prosecuted.”

Sharpton may be an ignorant, self-aggrandizing, rabble-rousing charlatan, but that doesn't mean he's wrong every time. This time, he's right on. Why was the policeman not prosecuted? Garner said eleven times that he could not breathe, but the police officer kept the pressure on Garner's neck, and Garner died. The medical examiner ruled it was homicide. Why did the officer do it? How was he trained, that his actions seemed reasonable to him?

Arresting Garner in the first place is part of a what's known as the "broken windows" policy, a theory the New York Times describes as 

a plausibly uncomplicated theory [to] revolutionize law enforcement in the city: Maintaining public order also helps prevent crime.

The idea is that, if you come down hard on little offenses, they never have a chance to turn into big offences. And so it makes sense to crack down on a minor offender like Garner, who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes on the street. Don't let people get away with a "broken windows" level of disorder, and the disorder stops there.

There is some dispute over whether this approach is effective or not. What's clear is that, as with other policy, extremism leads to abuse. George Kelling, one of the professors who originated the "broken windows" theory, warned against "zealotry and no discretion" when a broken windows campaign is implemented. When zealotry takes over, we lose sight of the goal of maintaining peace, and instead focus on what is supposed to be a step toward that goal. Rather than arresting petty criminals in order to prevent major crime, we end up treating petty criminals as if they were already major criminals.

We end up legally executing men for the crime of selling loose cigarettes.

That is what happens when "zealotry and no discretion" take over. But one aspect of a "broken windows" policy indisputably works, and that is the idea of cutting off crime at the root, before it has a chance to blossom.

But there are different ways to cut crime off. You could go in like a bulldozer, crushing petty criminals like Garner into the ground. Or you could do what a town in North Carolina did: they identify the petty criminals who help sustain the criminal subculture -- and they give them a chance to get out, before they "blossom" into dangerous offenders.

The town is not surrendering to crime, and they are not coddling hardened criminals. But they are taking extra time, effort, and manpower to meet the people where they are -- and that includes the criminals, their families, and the criminal's victims. 

And they made significant headway against drug crime, using an approach that is "deliberately theatrical." They spend weeks and months amassing evidence against suspected, low-level drug dealers. They meet with "influentials" in the suspects' lives -- their moms, their grandmothers, their pastors. They had these "influentials" invite the offenders to meet with them, with a promise that they would not be arrested.

In a room, the "influentials" pleaded with the suspects, explaining how their actions affected the community, their families, and themselves.

 The suspects, however, "were slouching in their seats and one guy even seemed to be dozing off," recalls Don Stevenson, pastor of a local congregation, the First Reformed United Church of Christ. "Their attitude was, 'This is just another program and it will blow over.'"

But that was only step one.  In the next room,

 they encountered a phalanx of law-enforcement officials: police, a district attorney, an assistant U.S. attorney, and representatives of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and others. Around the room hung poster-size photos of crack houses that had been the dealers' headquarters. In front of each alleged dealer was a binder, laying out the evidence against him or her. There were even arrest warrants, lacking only the signature of a judge.

The law-enforcement officials made an ultimatum: stop dealing or go to jail.

This combination of the personal appeal and the immanent legal threat? It worked. The drug markets shut down almost immediately. Hardened and dangerous criminals were arrested, but those on the fringes, and those who are new to the criminal world, were given an out. And they took that out.

The threat of going to jail is coupled with a message of support from locals. Jim Summey, pastor of the West End's English Road Baptist Church and a leader in the community's anticrime crusade, sums up the message: "We are against what you're doing, but we're for you."

Dejournette [a 19-year-old alleged dealer who took the opportunity to avoid arrest] recalls, "We wasn't expecting that....It did make an impression on me."

Other police forces are following this more personal approach to working with petty criminals, rather than treating all suspects like major offenders. In Portsmouth, NH, where drug crime has been steadily climbing, the Deputy Police Chief has announced a new program, Cops on Corners.  Police officers will station themselves in pre-announced locations around the city -- not to make arrests or to patrol, but simply to make themselves available to talk to people in those neighborhoods, to find out what the real problems are, and to hear the citizen's ideas about what can be done.

The idea is to treat people like . . . people. To listen to the people who live in those neighborhoods, whether they feel victimized by criminals or by the police. To see what can be done to undermine criminal subcultures without crushing the lives of petty offenders. To give people a chance to explain their frustrations with how the city is being run, and to give petty criminals an out (officers will be ready with information for addicts about where they can find help).

That's how this ought to work. Criminals should be treated like human beings -- and police officers should be allowed to behave like human beings.  One of the horrors of the Eric Garner case is that the officer involved let himself hear the words "I can't breathe" eleven separate times, but he did not let go of the man's neck. Garner is dead, and the officer has killed a man. The officer has been depersonalized, just like his victim was. This must end.