Barry John Johnson, Special guest op-ed contributor.

by Barry John Johnson

As I look at the turmoil taking place in Baltimore, crowds enraged, cars being smashed and windows broken, my mind goes to a sense of irony related to an old academic policing concept, The Broken Windows Theory. Developed by James Q. Wilson, it has sometimes been cited as a justification for proactive or aggressive policing policies like “Stop and Frisk” as a matter of nipping in the bud any potential for unlawful behavior. The theory in essence says, once you allow one broken window on the block to go unrepaired, it sets a new standard as to what is acceptable, and further broken windows will in turn go unrepaired. The neighborhood, and therefore society, will then deteriorate into greater lawlessness and less responsible citizenry.

The Broken Window Theory actually works……… for broken windows. As a former City Manager, I saw the theory applied, practically and effectively in the context of code enforcement directed at poor property management and physical deterioration of property in general. It alleviates poor housing conditions. It gets old rotting couches off of the lawn. A neighborhood can look better, cleaner and brighter. The theory might then espouse that people in that neighborhood will behave better as well, as a new standard of personal responsibly and lawfulness is created.

At some point, somewhere along the way, this theory may have been distorted as it has been applied more directly at human behavior with the range of what might be considered proactive application creeping wider and wider.

The Broken Window may have become a kid in a hoodie. The Broken Window may have become a teen listening to loud music. With racial profiling, in effect, implementing this academic theory, the Broken Window may have become an entire class of people.

An old academic theory, distorted, has become a tool of societal suppression in the name of effective policing. Why wouldn’t one, be mad, upset and maybe even riot, if determined to be a Broken Window?

Now, in the spirit of irony, it appears that the Broken Window is us, or the society that allows its wholesale application in a distorted fashion.

Now the Broken Window might be:

A lack of truly sincere community policing policies An overt over-militarization of local police agencies Pro-police bias in excessive force review and prosecution An inability in the policing profession to be introspective A default “bunker mentality” of police union organizations Rampant overt and subtle racism in society in general Lack of economic opportunity for disenfranchised groups How do we deal with all of these Broken Windows? Ironically again, we nip them in the bud. We take corrective action. We have to be proactive in addressing and all inkling of ineffective or biased policing. We revamp community policing strategies to be real and sincere. We talk about whether there is a pro-police prosecutorial bias and how it might be addressed. We take swift and aggressive action against regarding any indication of bias or excessive force on the part of individual officers.

We, in effect, turn the Broken Window Theory inside out.

Author Bio: Barry John Johnson is a former City Manager, now licensed as a counselor in California.


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