Friday, August 15, 2014

"Broken Windows": A "science"? And who bears the burden of proof? And what does the burden relate to? In short: what really matters in the end?

The so-called "Broken Windows Theory" is back in the news in a big way.  The main reason is only what any reasonably decent human being could think of as the senseless and horrifyingly unjust death of Eric Garner.  

If you haven't seen the video, I'd venture to contend that it's your responsibility as a human being and as a citizen to see it.  And here it is:

And all of this, at the very most, over the selling of an untaxed cigarette?  If only it were a joke, but sadly and shamefully, it is not.  

Far from it. 

A man is dead. And no amount of additional explanation or video footage could possibly demonstrate that his death was anything but grossly unjust. Indeed, the notion that anyone could think otherwise, by my lights, is nothing less than outrageous and reprehensible.

Cover-up? Eric Garner, 43, died after being held in a 'chokehold' by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island   Who's the culprit? Who's responsible and what ought to be done about it? Let's say a year or two from now, the officers who killed Eric Garner are behind bars. Is that "justice"? I'd venture to say: no. In my estimation, meaningful justice is a long, long way from here or anything that seems likely to happen, or even to be seriously discussed, anytime soon.

In a sense, the reemergence of "Broken Windows" and an incident like the one that led to Eric Garner's death should come as no surprise, as history's cruelities have, yet again, repeated themselves. Almost two decades after his first stint as commissioner of the NYPD, under then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani ("America's Mayor"), William Bratton is now, once more, commissioner of America's largest urban police force, and no differently than before, he is championing and aggressively implementing the approach to policing known as "Broken Windows." 

And Bratton is currently doing so, even--or perhaps especially--in the face of the senseless, horribly tragic, and unjust killing of an unarmed, and otherwise nonviolent, African-American man whose real "crime" seemed, more than anything else, to be talking back to and resisting those who have been taught and trained to expect and demand docility from those to whom they routinely require docilility or else.

Sound familiar? To anyone who knows their history, I should think it ought to. Most Americans have never, and perhaps never will, come to terms with real American history--fantastically ugly warts and all. If we knew what we ought to know, not just about history, but about the way in which American society and the world around it is structured, I can't fathom how shame, embarrassment, outrage, and guilt--the sense, at the very least, that a tremendous debt is owed that has yet to be paid--could not follow. But perhaps even this very modest musing is naively optimistic. 

Oh yes, through more than two centuries-worth "Independence Day" celebrations, we've come along way!!! There is no slavery in the United States as there once was. There is no segregation by law. Lynching is not condoned as it once was. Congratulations America. How far we've come and yet how little has changed. Against current fashions, no empirical hyperbole is necessary to make the case that we ought to feel something far less than pride or patriotism over how little moral distance America has traveled over the past few hundred years. 

To anyone who is genuinely interested in knowing what's going on today in this place we call America, the context--both historical and social--is so clearly essential. Yet, context is something that we have been conditioned to ignore, if not to proudly reject as weak-kneed sentimentalism that only "liberals" or "socialists" or "Anti-Americans" could ever countenance. The end result is what the sociologist David Riesman called "historical amnesia" or what the great Stanley Cohen referred to as "collective denial."  As Cohen brilliantly put it: "Organized denial works best when people prefer 'not to have an inquiring mind.'  Slow cultural forgetting works best when powerful forces an interest in keeping people quiet."  More on this another time.

For now, it suffices to say that, whether as a consequence conditioning (e.g., "education"), willful ignorance, or plain-old "bad faith," Americans are most certainly not "#1" when it comes to historical memory or sociological imagination.    

Back to Bratton and "Broken Windows": the commissioner's persistent commitment to the philosophy is, in a sense, not at all surprising, as he has always, by his reckoning, been an aficionado of the tactics it counsels and legitimates--so much so, in fact, that Bratton claimed to have affection for such tactics even long before he became aware of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's seminal article in Atlantic Monthly, way back in 1982, when the two scholars first introduced the world to "Broken Windows." As Bernard Harcourt notes in his book Illusions of Order, Bratton claimed that Wilson and Kelling's essay "articulated and put into beautiful words what I had found from experience. I supported what [Wilson and Kelling] wrote, because I had already lived it . . . ." 

Of course, Bratton has never truly lived it. He is surely not living it now.  Men like Eric Garner have lived it. And every now and again, but all too often, to be sure, men like Eric Garner die as a result of it.

What was surprising--and positively depressing--to me and to others is that Bill De Blasio, the current mayor of New York City, opted to appoint Bratton as his police commissioner. This is the same Bill De Blasio who not only dubbed himself the "progressive choice for mayor" not all that long ago, but more to the point at hand, was the only viable mayoral candidate who unequivocally declared that he would end the NYPD's stop and frisk program, a program which, the candidate De Blasio rightly pointed out at the time, "targets minorities."

This was, to say the least, a breath of fresh air for progressive New Yorkers and many other progressives who (like myself) live outside of New York City, but who have some connection to the city, or simply do not want hundreds of thousands of people being stopped and frisked by the police for no good (or legal) reasons, particularly when the overwhelming majority of people subjected to the unjust and illegal stops are African-Americans or members of other historically disadvantaged minority groups. That is: constituents of the very groups who have been, for the better part of American history, subjected to racist and often brutal policing strategies and tactics. 

I never understood--and still don't quite understand--what the controversy about the "stop and frisk" policy was all about. It struck me, and still strikes me, as a no-brainer if there ever was one.  The high point for the total number of stops-and-frisks was in 2011, under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.

The numbers were mind-boggling, particularly in a city that many conservative Americans imagine as some kind of bastion of "liberalism." In that year, the NYPD made 685,724 "stops." Of this number, an overwhelming majority of them--605,328 or 88% of all those who were stopped--were not issued a summons or arrested and thus, as a legal matter, were perfectly innocent; 350,743 people, or 53% of those stopped, were African-American; 223,740, or 34% of those stopped, were Latino; and only 61,805, or 9% of those stopped, were Caucausian.

I don't see now--and I have never seen--what there is to debate in the face of such numbers.

In any society that truly values anything like freedom and equality--as politicians of various political and ideological persuasions have long boasted of as principles that are uniquely prized and protected in American society--such statistics ought to, in theory, supply plenty cause for outrage and indignation, regardless of whether the policy "worked" to reduce crime or "worked" in any other manner. The principle could not be simpler or more straightforward: people who have done nothing wrong should not be subjected to state violence or to the threat of state violence.  And consistent with Mayor De Blasio's campaign promise, stops and frisks have declined dramatically during his term as mayor. 

Amen to that.

And yet, quite clearly, as the death of Eric Garner attests to, all is not well in the "Big Apple" (to say nothing of places like Ferguson, Missouri).

"Giuliani-Time" may be a distant memory, but "Bratton-Time" is here again. When I first heard the rumor that De Blasio would appoint Bratton as his police commissioner, I shrugged it off; it made no sense to me, politically naive as I apparently was. Then, as it became plain that the rumor would become a reality, my theory was that appointing Bratton would simply serve as political cover for ending the NYPD's aggressive stop-and-frisk policy. Maybe I was right at the time. But now, quite clearly, we know that Bratton Redux has amounted to much more than mere political cover. 

And yet, as Bratton, among others, have been so hell-bent on reminding us, crime has been historically low for a very long time in New York City. So what's the point of "Fixing Broken Windows" at this point? To get a bit more academic about the matter, neither the "theory" nor the data are up to snuff.  To make a very long story short (for now), part of the problem, as far as the the theory is concerned, is that the goalpost keeps shifting on us.  In the beginning, the "Broken Windows" theory of policing was really not a theory at all (certainly not a "scientific" theory), but rather, at best, a philosophy of policing.  Then it pretended to science, focusing in particular on the connection between: (a) "disorder" and low-level illegal behavior; and (b) serious crime.  Now, the latest is that, perhaps, the disorder-crime nexus is not so central or even relevant to the "theory" after all.

Surely no serious adult debate should work like this.  

When I first began to study crime, policing, and punishment systematically, my understanding of "Broken Windows" policing was pretty much what I imagine most people who are aware of the term think about it these days; what the media has tended to say about it; and what many, if not most, proponents of the approach think of it: it's premised on the notion that "disorder" or marginally illicit behaivor (say, for instance, selling untaxed cigarettes) leads to more "disorder," more and more "disorderly" and marginally illicit behavior, and then, eventually, to serious crime.

Yet, contrary to the conventional wisdom, one of the more interesting facets of Wilson and Kelling's original articulation of the "Broken Windows Theory" is that it wasn't much of a theory at all (see Jock Young's analysis in an earlier post on this blog). Wilson and Kelling don't predict much of anything in their seminal essay. Rather, the following line was typical of their analysis: "failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community" (emphasis added). Of course, lots of things may happen in any given context. A "score of drunks" or " hundred vagrants" may also make for one helluva good time or the beginnings of a social movement.  Who knows?

In "science," claims about what "may" or "can" happen are usually not deemed to be up to snuff, at least not without specifying the conditions under which the dependent variable will occur or not occur. There may be a god. There may not be a god. There may be 10,000 gods. There may be a million gods. There may be 1/4 of a god. We may exist in some giant's dream. For most matters, unabashed agnostic that I am, I happen to like the language of "may" and "can," but it's not the language of "scientific" assertion. 

And, more importantly, the standard of "may" is also not a sufficient threshold for authorizing state violence in a society that genuinely values freedom or that has long prided itself on being wary of the potential excesses of "state power." 

Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with speculation, particularly if it's informed and not driven by crude political calculations or spite or the like. This seems to me to be, in general, a pretty good rule for individuals and societies to live by. Often times in life, we can't do any better than to make informed guesses. Yet, when it comes to the coercive powers of the state, much more, it seems, should be demanded, even by the logic of a bunch of dead, old, white, male slaveowners from a few hundred years ago, who we Americans have long been in the habit of revering. Consider what no less than James Madison had to say in one of the most famous passages from the Federalist Papers
But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
Wow. You don't say?

Here's a translation for today: if you charge some people among our numbers with the task of repressing acts like selling untaxed cigarettes or drinking in public or plenty of other offenses that, in and of themselves, do no appreciable harm to anyone, and, in the process, routinely deprive people of their freedom, guess what? The repressed sometimes resist. As did Eric Gardner. As would I if I were in his position.  At least I hope I would.  If I didn't, it would not be out of principle, but probably out of plain old-fashioned fear. 

And men like Eric Garner, I suspect, are especially likely to resist repression if they sense, on some level, that the "laws" to which they are being subjected are some brand of "bullshit." Selling cigarettes? That's what authorized the police to approach the man, to threaten him, and to humiliate him in front of others? Are we for real? And whether or not this man's death was justified or unjustified is taken as a serious question?

It's not--I dare say--a serious question for anyone who values life and liberty. 

Facts are not the central issue here. If there's any doubt to be grappled with, it's to be dealt with through serious soul-searching, not by sifting through facts. The facts are plenty clear enough.

Still, there is, however, the question of who, on the ground level, is charged with treating the Eric Garners of the world as broken windows. What do we know about them? To be honest, I don't have much of a clue. My best guess, though, is that many of NYPD's "finest" are scared kids or the equivalent of as much. They want to be something like cowboys but never will be. Their cause is not much of a cause. And so, naturally enough, they're insecure. The Eric Garners of the world challenge them, not just with words, but on an existential level, particularly when the NYPD and other departments who employ these officers don't, perhaps by virtue of some malleable and rudimentary philosophy called "Broken Windows" or this or that, let them, much less encourage them, to treat human beings as human beings. And then, no surprise: bad shit happens. And every now and again, someone's life comes to an end for no good reason. Blame the individual cops if you must. My aim, however, is not so focused. At a minimum, I blame a stupid, senseless policy that puts people--the police and the policed alike--into terrible, often unworkable, situations that once in every who-knows-how-many-times ends in an utterly indefensible tragedy.  

Eric Garner died. He is no more. His family and others who cared about him will suffer immeasurably. And for what?

What sayeth the architects of "Broken Windows"?  James Q. Wilson has passed on, yet George Kelling is still among us. What does the latter have to say?

Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article from a few days ago in which the now-retired Kelling stays true to what, at the moment, he apparently thinks of as the "science" of "Broken Windows":
“It started as an observation, but since then there’s been science,” Professor Kelling said in an interview, citing studies by criminologists in the Netherlands and Lowell, Mass. “The burden’s on the other side to say there is no link between disorderly conditions and serious crime.”
Well, Professor Kelling, studies from the "other side" have been done and they have shown "no link" or, at best, a very weak link. That's the easiest point to make here and it's been made far too many times for the New York Times or anyone else to ignore.

But I think there's a much more important and fundamental point to be made in response to Kelling and his ilk. And that is this: in a society that values liberty and that (as Tea Partiers, among others, would have it) worries about entrusting the state with too much power, we ought to, at a very minimum, limit the power of state actors (police officers and such) to use violence to achieve only very particular, carefully defined, ends, only perhaps those ends that are justified by the most compelling of reasons and supported by the most compelling evidence. All mays and cans notwithstanding, the so-called "Broken Windows Theory" does not get us there--not even close.

As a matter of "science," Kelling is rather wrong (see below for a simple illustration). The "burden" was--and remains--on Kelling and other proponents of the "Broken Windows Theory" to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that low-level disorder or marginally illegal acts lead eventually (and inevitably?) to serious crime. They have never done so. 

And as I hope to make clear soon enough in some combination of a book and articles, as this all has played out in my own corner of the social universe, lots of low-level disorder and illicit behavior happens daily, but does not lead to serious crime. This, of course, does not prove that low-level disorder and illicit behavior never leads to crime or never will. Such a claim would be silly for me to make. 

Yet, if we must speak of "social science" as science, consider this: I lift the keyboard upon which I am currently writing and I release my hands from it; rather than falling to the table or to the ground below me, the keyboard remains where my hands left it, suspended in air. Well that would be front-page news and enough to call into question our theory of gravity as we presently understand it. While I think it's probably a bit of a fool's errand to think about "social science" in the same way we think about "natural science," if theories of the social pretend towards the science of the natural, I don't see any reason why the standards of proof should be any less rigorous.

And I know from plenty enough observation that low-level disorder and illegal behavior (even defined in the most conventional of terms) does not necessarily lead to serious crime. So, taking Kelling's claim of "science" seriously, where does that leave us? No serious scientist would ignore a keyboard floating in mid-air, would they? Why then should we insist upon some theory that posits a connection between low-level crime and disorder, on the one hand, and serious crime, on the other hand, if we know that there is at least one space (and very possibly a great many more) in which that predicted relationship does not hold true?

And here comes the kicker: some commentators are suggesting these days that "Broken Windows" policing is not, in fact, about the linkage between low-level offenses/disorder and serious crime.  Wait, what? Since when?  That's not how "science" works, does it?

Consider the following segment on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show from a few weeks ago:  The guests were New York Times reporters Matt Flegenheimer and J. David Goodman who co-wrote an article about the NYPD's crackdown on subway performances and, in particular, its crackdown on "acrobatic" dancing on the subway.  Their piece was entitled "On Subway, Flying Feet Can Lead to Handcuffs."

Like Lehrer's show in general--and recent episodes in particular--this segment was extremely instructive, though incredibly annoying at times, so annoying, in fact, that, very uncharacteristically, I felt compelled to call into the show and say my piece.  Before I had called in, every single caller had congratulated the NYPD for their crackdown on subway dancing, not because anyone has been seriously injured as a result of such performances, but rather, because they feared as much or just because they found themselves "annoyed" (no more, I assure you, than they annoyed me, just hearing them on the radio).  One woman called in and complained that she had been kicked in the shins once, but who hasn't been kicked in the shins, pushed in the back, or shoved around on the subway?  Welcome to New York City--the tamest as perhaps it has ever been--but still a place where your expectations should clearly not be the same as what you might reasonably expect walking through a shopping mall in Iowa or some other such place.

When I called into Lehrer's show, I had hoped to make several points, but only had the chance to make two: (1) before we arrest or incarcerate anyone, let's get our evidence straight; and (2) my own research has shown that deeds we deem "disorderly" do not necessarily lead to serious crime, if they ever do.  It was at that point that the two New York Times reporters emphasized that Bratton and the NYPD are not justifying their crackdowns on the theory that subway performances will lead to serious crime.  That, apparently, is no longer the fashion in the pseudoscience of "Broken Windows"--or, perhaps, it is only the fashion when it's convenient to be.

Once more: really?  

What is more, getting down to 'brass tacks,' we're not talking about inanimate objects here.  When it comes to matters of policing and punishment and other issues of social importance, facts and values cannot be so easily separated. 

As I see it, if we are indeed living in a society that truly values liberty, and in which individuals are not subjected to the violence of the state absent the most compelling of reasons, Kelling, Bratton, & Co. might as well be living in an altogether different universe.  Even if they were able to show in a million or more studies that there is a strong--and, if you will, "statistically significant"--connection between disorder, low-level illegal behavior, and serious crime, we should still not be satisfied.  If we took liberty seriously, the analysis would not be terribly different than it is when it comes to the right to "free speech." With speech, however odious it may strike us and whatever may come of it, it is generally protected constitutionally, and is thus not subject to sanction, so long as the harm it causes is not so harmful that "the state" has a "compelling interest" in regulating it. And even then, using the violence of the state would be a last resort, certainly not a first resort. 

And if our standard in general for subjecting our neighbors to state violence and depriving them of their liberty is not similarly onerous, let's be honest: R.I.P. any notion of the "America" we hear about ad nauseum from political candidates of all supposedly different ideological persuasions. R.I.P. "liberty" in any meaningful sense of the term. And, certainly, to say the least, R.I.P. that precious notion to which many Americans hold dear, which goes by the name of "limited government" or some other such thing. 

There is no bringing Eric Garner back--not to this world.

From the stories I've read about the man, he meant a lot to people in his life, and wretched as this world and this society may prove to be in the end, his memory will live on. And I have a faint hope that his death might yet stand for much more.

I desperately hope that Eric Garner's death will prompt us, finally, to take seriously that which, for centuries now, America has pretended to take seriously but never really has: liberty and, hell, even life itself

Enough is enough already. No?