by Michael Jenkins, professor at the University of Scranton
Inseparability of the Police and the Public
With the creation of the first modern police department in 1829, the London Metropolitan Police Department, Sir Robert Peel oversaw a new philosophy of policing that gave life to what later become known as Peel’s Principles. Perhaps the most known rule is:
To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen, in the interests of community welfare and existence.
Maintaining public order is the responsibility of both the police and the public, to work “in the interests of community welfare and existence.” Strained police-citizen relationships threaten the existence of any community, a community in which both the police and the public play essential parts.
Violence Weakens Community
Violence threatens community existence and affects both public and the police. But police too rarely acknowledge that community violence affects police. Gun violence is seen as a problem “in that part of the city.” Too many police believe that some people simply make bad choices. Too many academics believe that violence is basically inevitable as long as injustice exists, as if some people have zero agency against oppressive social forces.
But unlike most academics, police wear the wounds of this violence when they enter “that part of the city” and when interacting with people who look like they reflect the street culture of “that part of the city.” This default to danger, as I refer to it, can result in a forceful style of policing that would never be accepted in “better” parts of the city. But police, too, respond to the values, behavior, and culture of any community they police, a world in which they spend one-third of their waking life.
Police violence further blurs the public’s ability to see police as part of their community. Residents rightfully criticize police over-reliance on force and bemoan police inefficacy in preventing violence or catching perpetrators. In some cities, the “defund the police” movement and its accompanying rhetoric entrench the police self-image as being distinct from the community, no matter how much police officers spend time in and understand the community.
Police idolatry of the “thin blue line” metaphor is equally problematic, as it minimizes the public’s responsibility for community well-being and places that role solely in the hands of the police. Community well-being becomes something the police do to the passive public, instead of what the police and the public do together for the betterment of their community.
Police reinforce this separation from the public with thin-skinned over-reaction to legitimate criticism. Cops may circle the wagons to protect an accused fellow officer or simply walk away from their oath to protect people (i.e., the Ferguson effect) at the precise moments police service is most needed.
Preventing Violence by Reinforcing Community
Popular remedies for improved police-community relations usually occur within the context of Community-Oriented Policing. Most examples of this model maintain a stance of separation between police on one side and the community on the other. The most effective implementations of Community-Oriented Policing, and not coincidentally the communities that can best beat back an uptick in street violence, are those in which the police and the public already have an inseparable vision for their community’s well-being, the recognition that police safety and public safety are inextricably linked.
But it is within this framework of Community-Oriented Policing that communities can and should re-imagine the controversially-applied Broken Windows theory. Rooted in the framework of Jane Jacob’s urbanism, Broken Windows posits that attention to physical and social disorder creates the normative conditions to change behavior and prevent more serious crime.
Reducing physical and social disorder has been shown to decrease levels of disorder, crime, and fear of crime, reduce the number of felons in prison, and reinforce the informal social control mechanisms of neighborhoods. Police-led programs, informed by the connection between disorder and crime, reduce violence by tackling physical disorder. This can create a change of behavior in public space.
The phrase Broken Windows become toxic as it morphed (despite the strong objections of its author George Kelling) into Zero Tolerance policing. Broken Windows demands the enforcement of community standards, encourages professional police officer discretion, and has the goal of improved public safety and less public fear. Zero Tolerance looks for a measure of enforcement, judges success based on tickets and arrests, and treats police like automatons and the public as a source of revenue.
Problems arose as police departments across the country failed to understand the distinction. First, police placed too much emphasis on socialdisorder, as opposed to dealing with the signs of physical disorder.
Second, police frequently applied these tactics using a stat-based, zero-tolerance standard—issuing citations, summonses, or arrest for every infraction they encounter. The most pernicious implementation of the broken windows theory was its use as a justification for the extensive application of stop-question-frisk. This did not change behavior, but was simply an arbitrary enforcement deployed in a non-arbitrary way. The means of police enforcement became the ends. The ends, unifying the goals of the public and police, become lost in the means.
The indiscriminate focus on producing numbers and the widespread use of stop-question-frisk within a zero-tolerance approach, went against any Broken Windows philosophy and harmed the community by unnecessarily introducing people into the criminal justice system and disproportionately targeting non-white persons.
Reformulating community as consisting of equal parts police and the public will reduce the negative outcomes and enhance the crime reduction effects associated with Broken Windows and community-oriented and community-originated tactics. Surveys routinely show that people living in areas experiencing high levels of violence also view with great concern signs of physical and social disorder. Procedurally just applications of police interventions increase police legitimacy, cooperation with police, and compliance with the law.
To reduce the surge of violence in US cities, policing needs to return to its modern roots. The public and the police should steadfastly endeavor to improve their communities by curtailing disorder. Communities can use new data-gathering technologies (e.g. RespectStat) and analytic tools (e.g., Risk Terrain Modeling) to determine their priorities and methods for responding to them.
A healthy community requires a confluence of police and public interests. Success in preventing disorder will strengthen that bond and set the conditions for a community to summon the coefficient enforcement, social, and environmental mechanisms that can also affect street violence.
Michael J. Jenkins, Ph.D. is chair of the Sociology, Criminal Justice & Criminology Department at the University of Scranton and serves as the Executive Director of the University’s Center for the Analysis and Prevention of Crime. He is editor of the ACJS Police Section’s Police Forum. He completed the Fulbright Scholar program with the London Metropolitan Police and has published books on policing in the US and internationally.