U.S. Police: Broken Windows Neoliberalism



The 2014 uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of 18-year old Michael Brown illuminated a sinister pattern of policing. In 2013, the city of Ferguson issued the highest numbers of warrants in the state relative to the size of its municipality. Home to just over 21,000 people, issued over 24,000 warrants in one year. The disproportionality resulted from vigilant policing around crimes of poverty, more often traffic violations such as driving with a suspended license, expired registration, or without proof of insurance. When drivers did not or could not pay their traffic tickets and subsequently failed to show up for court dates, municipal courts transformed these unpaid tickets into warrants. In this period, over 9,000 warrants were issued for missed court appearances or unpaid (or partially paid) fines; an unsurprising fact given that fines and subsequent fees often constituted more than many residents’ monthly income.

The rising issuance of these warrants directly correlated to their increasing significance in city coffers. Since 2011, city revenue from traffic fines increased dramatically, constituting 20% of the city’s $12 million dollar budget. Warrants also resulted from other crimes of poverty, what are often called “quality of life” violations. These “crimes” include minor victimless infractions such as fare hopping on public transportation, playing loud music, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” or even more mundanely, jaywalking (once suggested as the plausible pretext for Michael Brown’s fatal encounter with the Ferguson Police Department). So extreme is this routine surveillance and arbitrary criminalization, the Department of Justice Report described an incident where St. Louis police charged a man for making a false declaration: he had said his name was Mike while his ID defined him as Michael.

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HOLC map of Saint Louis in 1937: 15% First Grade (“best”), 38% Second Grade (“still desirable”),
32% Third Grade (“definitely declining”), 16% Fourth Grade (“Hazardous”). All maps are from Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers (see notes below).

The situation in Ferguson is replicated throughout the country, particularly in the poorest regions which are disproportionately Black, Native, and Latino. In her recent dissenting opinion in the case of Utah vs. Streiff, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Sotomayor outlined the dread that permeates the lives of people of color where the constant threat of removal hangs over them. Policing crimes of poverty against people too poor to pay their tickets, court fees, or citations, has made people their bodies “subject to invasion,” making them feel not citizens of a democracy but “subject(s) of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.” This fear permeates the country. Currently, over 7.8 million outstanding warrants are logged in States and Federal Government databases, the majority of which are for minor offenses. How did this situation come to pass? Is this vulnerability new? Why and how has policing been tied to local regimes of accumulation?

The formal ability of police to stop, question, frisk, cite, or arrest any person they deemed a source of “disorder” has evolved over time. Discretion, the capacity of police officers to interpret situations and make decisions about enforcing the law, has evolved as formal policing procedure. In the U.S. police have historically had a limited range of formal discretionary powers, deployed through measures such as vagrancy laws, loitering laws, Black codes, and other forms of banishment aimed at purported sex workers. In response to the urban uprisings and urban renewal redevelopment projects of the late 1960s and early 1970s, legal scholars and criminal justice reformers sought to expand formal police discretion. “Order maintenance policing,” a practice of aggressively enforcing petty crimes, is an outgrowth of those debates. This concept vastly expanded police discretionary powers and became known by its more popular name: broken windows policing.

The term “broken windows” was popularized by a 1982 article in The Atlantic magazine by political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” The article touted the success of a Newark, New Jersey pilot program funded by the Police Foundation where Kelling was research director. Broken windows was subsequently promoted by conservative social scientists and most vigorously by the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank, of which Kelling was, and continues to be, a fellow. By expanding police capacity from response to preemption, broken windows policing came to constitute a dramatic shift in the legal functioning of police.

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HOLC map of Los Angeles in 1939 / Courtesy of Mapping Inequality

The now debunked Atlantic article concluded that the best way for police to prevent major crimes was to maintain visible signs of order in communities. The central metaphor describes an unaddressed broken window in a neighborhood as signaling neglect and encouraging small crimes which then lead to larger ones. Unchecked disorder such as graffiti, litter, panhandling, public urination is presumed to breed more grievous crimes such as rape, assault, and homicide from occurring. The expansion of discretion, according to the theory, simply encourages officers to maintain spatial order.

Broken windows draws upon earlier discursive practices that naturalized urban blight as a product of individual behavior rather than government policy of organized abandonment. Broken windows dissimulates police power relations in a similar manner. The seemingly innocuous transition from spatial metaphor to presumptive behavioral assessment is replete with biologized geographic assumptions. Through the metaphor of broken windows, human action is aggregated and abstracted into its spatial effects. The landscape is presumed to visually communicate social control, or the lack thereof, like a patient bearing symptoms. Crime is naturalized into an external invading pathogen. Criminals are construed as exterior forces, singularly driven in their quest to infect spaces with ever-greater crimes. In keeping with this narrative, assailable space and its presumptive victims are metaphorized into organs or cells lacking proper immunity. This imagined ecology is both highly local and also nonspecific: the pathology of spatialized disorder can be grafted onto the streets of any city at any time.

In this pseudo-scientific presentation, the police appear to uniquely possess expertise to diagnose and treat symptoms of disorder embedded in the landscape. But police are not doctors, landscapes are not diseased bodies, and crime is not a pathogen but a transgression of the law. Crimes change as laws change, and laws change, as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore notes, “depending on what, in a social order, counts as stability, and who, in a social order, needs to be controlled.” Crime, order, and safety are unfixed contested terms whose definitions shift over time. As the life of broken windows has shown, there is great danger in fixing notions of crime and order, just as there is great danger in basing policy on a metaphor.

Wilson and Kelling extolled the subjective processes that gave people the feeling of security. They celebrated an early Newark pilot program that failed to alter crime rates but allowed residents, “to feel more secure.” Critical for them was the artifice of safety, what chief critic Bernard Harcourt has called the “illusion of order.” To accomplish this, Kelling and Wilson emphasized how broken windows could limit potentially uncomfortable interactions in public space with, for example, an “obstreperous teenager” or “drunken panhandler,” either being as “fear-inducing…as the prospect of meeting an actual robber.” The equivalence is instructive. The expectation that police could protect people from their imagined fears implied that both protector and protected shared the same imaginary, the same fears, and the same normative interpretations of order. Discretion, in other words, is a highly subjective process.

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HOLC map of Oakland and Berkeley in 1937: 15% First Grade (“best”), 23% Second Grade (“still desirable”),
34% Third Grade (“definitely declining”), 27% Fourth Grade (“Hazardous”). / Courtesy of Mapping Inequality

Discretion is not a value free determination because space is not a neutral entity. Deep racist social divisions, such as histories of colonial removal, displacement, segregation, and restricted access to property ownership and federal subsidies, are already reified in the spatial organization of cities. Racism, in geographer Laura Pulido’s pithy summary, is not a discrete act of animus but rather a sociospatial relation, “both constituitive of the city and produced by it.” Thus, the mechanisms by which police officers comprehend and patrol space are predetermined. In his study of the LAPD, geographer Steve Herbert observes how police assign different moral orders to different spaces of the city and then “patrol with that order in mind, and not the law.” Areas of poor and working class communities of color are more often perceived by police as “unsafe” and “morally unclean” in contrast to wealthy areas of mostly white residents. The territoriality of policing, the spatialized normative orders determining police discretion, is deeply integrated within and reproductive of racist structures of domination. In these ways, broken windows policing reflects and reinforces the racist sociospatial order from which it springs.

As U.S. cities have been redeveloped by neoliberal policies, poor, and working class communities of color and Native populations have suffered disproportionate levels of dispossessions, displacements, evictions, policing, and incarceration as a result. Minimizing the threat of unwelcome encounters has unequivocally meant removing stigmatized people from urban space. In this respect, the metaphor of broken windows reveals as much as it conceals. It is impossible to fix broken windows: They cannot be repaired. They can only be replaced.

Broken windows policing should be understood within the shifting configurations of capital accumulation during the 1980s and 1990s. This period saw the advance of neoliberalization, a concept which refers to processes such as: the imposition of economic policies promoting the free flow of capital unencumbered by state regulation; the reconfiguration of the state away from social service provision and towards the facilitation of finance-led accumulation regimes; the reorientation of state capacities towards punitive functions to manage surplus populations and repress opposition; and an ideological project rationalizing how these transformations were understood, experienced, and explained. The implementation of neoliberal economic policies had distinct impacts on urban governance.

In U.S. cities, urban governments adopted new social functions. No longer primary sites of social reproduction for productive labor forces, deindustrialized urban centers were redeveloped into sites for local investment by global capital. In accordance, local urban and municipal governments reorganized their capacities, abolishing the vestiges of New Deal state investment in public infrastructure and social spending, and redirecting public investment towards the facilitation of capital mobility. The burden of shrinking public services, from transportation, education, healthcare, mental health, food subsidies, public housing, and access to public space, was borne by the poorest communities, and keenly carried by poor and working class women.

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HOLC map of Baltimore in 1937 / Courtesy of Mapping Inequality

To manage these transformations, U.S. cities also vastly expanded their punitive state functions. The criminalization of the urban poor and the political crushing of Left and labor opposition were necessary prerequisites for repurposing urban space into localized sites of investment. Police were conscripted to shore up investments and discipline bodies and behaviors in order to reshape the structures and function of cities. In these ways, broken windows policing not only regulated behavior in space, it also transformed the very space of its regulation.

Just as former strongholds of Left and anticolonial struggle were strangled by newly imposed debt regimes in the Global South, in the U.S., former strongholds of organized labor were subject to the most punitive transformations. Leading organized sectors of the U.S. working class were subject to mass firings, and their plants made early targets of offshoring. Such developments served as warnings to other segments of the class who dared to organize. Similarly, the period saw the overturning of many of the gains of the anticolonial and Black freedom struggle as well as the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a repression of the very memory of social equity as Jordan T. Camp’s work demonstrates.

The implementation of neoliberal policies required discursive practices to render people simultaneously less worthy of the state’s shrunken largesse and more deserving of its expanded punitive capacities. Accordingly, this era saw a shift in sensibilities, whereby conditions of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, went from grievable to contemptible. As unemployment grew, wages continued to stagnate, poverty increased, social services eroded, and incarceration rates skyrocketed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, popular outrage was redirected towards racialized targets.

Rising conservative backlash coalesced in this period, configuring immigrants, Black communities, welfare recipients, queer populations, and the homeless as the culprit of urban decline. As immigration increased, particularly as a result of globalization and US backed wars in Central America, nativist anger was stoked against, “people coming to take American jobs” “Welfare queens,” a racist moniker for imagined African American women supposedly getting rich on undeserved state subsidies, encapsulated a virulently racist and sexist vengeance at heart of neoliberal ideology as Wahneema Lubiano describes. Such constructs incurred the wrath of people who felt their country was being stolen from them. While white people were, and continue to be, the largest recipients of welfare and other forms of state aid, this zero sum imaginary reconfigured social provisions as unearned racial theft.

Broken windows emerged amidst the congealing of racist revenge driven politics, as Neil Smith has illustrated. Popular rage articulated with state transformations against social provisions and towards expansion of law and order. As George Kelling noted, “Crime prevention can be achieved only by vast social change by restoring family values, primarily by eliminating welfare.” In this distorted landscape, the public presence of poverty shifted from symptom of social crisis to sign of disorder. In these ways, policing and prisons supplanted liberal state functions and social insecurity was reinscribed as a way of life.

Working hand and hand with neoliberal policies, broken windows policing helped to inscribe a normative order, first upon the movement of capital, but necessarily and simultaneously upon the movement, productivity, desires, and behavior of people who inhabit those spaces. By intervening against presumptive “disorder” broken windows has enabled police to stop crimes that have not yet been committed. Officers become arbiters of an order to be realized, guardians against activity that could become criminal, and protectors of populations deemed to be the “legitimate” occupants of cities. As Wilson and Kelling noted, “The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.” Through broken windows policing, the transformations of the neoliberal political economy are diverted into the bodies of blamed.

There is great distance between what the neoliberal ideal imagines (the free movement of capital, a frictionless process of value realization, interchangeable spaces of accumulation) and what it actually encounters (developments held in abeyance, unrealized speculative value, projects rebuffed because of local law, custom, popular opposition, or legal barriers, etc.). This distance is critical to locating neoliberalism’s violence. To reconcile the lived present with neoliberalism’s aspirational future, great violence  — along with the very threat of it — must be deployed. In this regard, broken windows policing has become the social regulating mechanism used by cities and local states to discipline surplus populations, refashion public space, and render cities suitable for investment. It builds on and expands already existing race, class, and gendered exclusions, and renovates them towards new ends.

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HOLC map of Cleveland in 1940 / Courtesy of Mapping Inequality

If arrest is the political art of individualizing disorder as Allen Feldman suggests then broken windows performs the art of individualizing capital’s punitive abandonment. Through its metaphor, state retrenchment is naturalized as a spatial relation. Amidst destructive cycles of deindustrialization, disinvestment, and redevelopment, broken windows policing has been presented as the legitimate and commonsensical practice of restoring order or more mundanely, cleaning up trash. Broken windows has therefore unwittingly offered a perfect metonym, albeit not according to its authors’ intent. As deindustrialized cities have become veritable landscapes of broken windows  — replete with abandoned factories, crumbling infrastructure, and derelict apartment buildings  — policy makers, city planners, and police departments alike have utilized this logic to naturalize immiseration. Broken windows do not represent signals of individualized disorder or failing, but rather capital’s production of landscapes of assault and abandonment.

Simultaneously source and symptom, broken windows policing operationalizes the violence of neoliberalism. It is a portable logic capable of reconfiguring space at the pace of capital’s needs. In the name of regulating disorder, it builds on and expands already existing race, class, and gendered exclusions, renovating them towards new ends. In an era of mass incarceration these mechanisms transform people into walking warrants of the neoliberal city. But as uprisings across the US have shown, these processes are not natural, and neither are they inevitable.

(A longer version of this text appears in Christina Heatherton, “The Broken Windows of Rosa Ramos: Neoliberal Policing Regimes of Imminent Violability,” in Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State: Inequality, Exclusion and Change, edited by Leela Fernandes (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming).)

MAPPING INEQUALITY (notes on the illustrations) ///

Between 1935 and 1940, the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) surveyed and mapped mortgage risk in about 200 American cities. They graded neighborhoods on a scale of “A” to “D.” “A” areas were the “best” neighborhoods and judged to be safe investments for banks and other mortgage providers. “D” areas were deemed “hazardous,” neighborhoods that were too risky to receive mortgage credit.

Race and ethnicity arguably were the most important factors determining these grades. HOLC’s survey forms required its agents to assess the “infiltration” of undesirable populations, by which they meant African Americans, recent immigrants, and, to a lesser extent, working-class whites. With only a very few exceptions, African American neighborhoods — even neighborhoods that had as few as one African American family — received grades of “D.” The racism of these policies was not subtext: it was text, clearly and insistently declared in HOLC’s guidelines for determining the credit-worthiness of neighborhoods around the country.

The practice of denying access to mortgages and other forms of credit to neighborhoods based upon discriminatory and typically racist judgments later became known as redlining. “Mapping Inequality” (https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining), a collaborative project between researchers at the University of Richmond, the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, and Johns Hopkins University, is the first project to include all of the HOLC maps and area descriptions. While a few remain to be added, at launch the site includes more than 90% of the HOLC materials with the full collection to be completed soon.