The Broken Window Theory and Crowded Jails

It’s a fairly well-established theory of crime fighting, and it appears to have worked extremely well in New York City which, despite its size, is actually much safer than Baltimore (by a large margin, it would appear). It’s the “Broken Window” theory, i.e. – the notion that by cracking down on nuisance crimes, police actually make the areas where the approach is applied safer from more serious crimes. Not to mention more pleasant for those living in the affected area.

An article by the Capital Gazette pointed out that in Baltimore, those running the prison known as “Central Booking” in Baltimore noticed they had actual broken windows to take care of. According to one official with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the conditions at the jail created a “weakness of the secure perimeter to allow contraband to enter.” But what about the REAL broken window theory and how it may be affecting the way policing is done in the city?

Freddie Gray

A Justice Department investigation of the Baltimore City police in the wake of the Freddie Gray incident indicates that it could have been this type of policy that led, inexorably, to the tragedy. According to that report:

Baltimore police imposed its “zero tolerance” policing strategy in the late 1990s in an attempt to combat violent crime. The city has a troubling legacy of government-sponsored housing segregation, which has led to entrenched racial disparities in education, employment and even lead poisoning in children, the DOJ said. Against that backdrop, federal officials said the aggressive policing policy evolved into one of aggressive stops, searches and arrests that mainly targeted black residents.

On one hand, the approach of the Baltimore police is entirely reasonable. The leaders of the department had undoubtedly just studied the successes with the policy in New York City, and the job of a police officer in Baltimore is incredibly difficult. On the other hand, this is the type of policy that must be tracked carefully with statistics to fully understand precisely what is happening with the officers who represent “boots on the ground.”

What’s the Answer?

People are afraid of Baltimore. Justified or not, television shows and documentaries like “The Wire,” “Dope,” and “The Corner” have brought to light just how dangerous the city can be.

Clearly something must be done, but this is a problem that has existed for decades, and doesn’t promise to get any better any time soon or with any great ease. Clearly there is an underlying problem of poverty, poor education, and a fractured social structure that is contributing to what is happening in the city. And tougher law enforcement – while likely necessary – will only contain the problem (at best).