How a lack of legitimacy undermines “Broken Windows Policing”

In a 2011 New Yorker talk, Malcolm Gladwell described the central role “legitimacy” plays in motivating people.  Previously, political theorists had focused on “deterrence theory” that treats people as rational actors who decide whether to follow the law based upon a weighing of the pros and cons of compliance.

Protesting Illegitimate Authority

Gladwell cites NYU Professor Tom Tyler’s work on “legitimacy”, and argues that people will fight to the death and even go on hunger strikes against an authority they feel is illegitimate, despite overwhelming penalties that deterrence theorists assume would be effective.

Gladwell identifies 3 factors in establishing legitimacy:

  1. Does the authority grant one standing and listen to one’s petitions?
  2. Is authority administered with neutrality or is there one set of rules for one group and a different system for others?
  3. Is the system trustworthy — does it follow well-defined rules that are sensible and are not subject to arbitrary change?

How Reform Efforts go Wrong:

Society celebrates civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and police reformers such as Jack Maple, but society often fails to recognize how easily reform can falter if succeeding leaders do not follow in the original spirit.

In this article I originally wanted  to also include an evaluation of the role “legitimacy” plays in the right’s perception of the anti-racism movement, but this post is already quite long so this post will focus solely on policing.

In the following post, I summarize a number of sources that suggest that while the policing reforms of the 1980s were innovative and effective, the system mutated into an irrational system of “broken-windows policing” that disproportionately harasses and alienates minorities.

When one asks why do minorities not comply with police, I believe that generally an important factor is American policing’s weak legitimacy.


How Policing Reform turned into “broken windows” policing

There is an excellent 2-part podcast series by Reply-all that chronicles how desperate the crime problem was in New York City in the 1980s and how one policeman rescued the city and transformed policing on a nation-wide basis. Unfortunately his reforms were warped into the system that is today referred to as “broken windows” policing.


Please listen to these two podcasts because they are a major influence on my thinking about broken-windows policing.

  1. The Crime Machine, Part I (please listen)
  2. The Crime Machine, Part II (please listen)


The Reply-all podcast reports that in the 1980s, when New York City was in crisis, the New York City police only cared about crime that affected white people or rich people.

Police wouldn’t even investigate a theft that was less than $10,000 ($32,000 in today’s dollars).  It was during this crisis that a transit-cop named Jack Maple created an innovative COMSTAT database that allowed police to identify the most prolific criminals and treat every crime seriously.


Leadership cares more about image than problem solving

A big part of the episode is about people’s efforts to fight systemic dysfunction in a world where leadership cares more about looking good than actually addressing problems.


There are many organizations whose leadership care more about public relations or resume-building than actually dealing with real problems.  Maybe you’ve had a CEO or supervisor who manages their organization with too much of an eye to how they look in the press or how an act contributes to their resume.  I suspect the same problem occurs with the police and elected city leadership.  In this environment it’s more important to have a lot of superficial statistics to placate the establishment and “earn” a promotion rather than dealing with difficult problems.  When too many people follow this path, it becomes difficult for the average person to do the right thing.


Jack Maple was fighting a dysfunctional police system when he created COMSTAT but the introduction of the database was not handled in a healthy way, and the domineering and brutal New York police culture perpetuated itself in the way the database came to be used.


Rather than being used as a tool to help the police become better partners with the community and identify the most prolific criminals, COMSTAT came to be used as a tool of the police leadership and mayor to generate good-sounding statistics.


Making Leadership Look Good at Minorities Expense

After Jack Maple (the database’s original inventor) retired, police were ordered to rack up stats in minority neighborhoods to make quota so that the mayor and police leadership could brag about how tough they were on crime.  After a while, police leadership painted themselves into a corner and they needed to generate even more “activity” statistics (tickets) in minority neighborhoods and also to under-report actual crime so that the city could still advertise itself as an increasingly safe place for tourists and those wanting to buy property.  After a series of years in which crime was understated, it became difficult for honest police to accurately report reality.


In minority neighborhoods, under Rudolph Giuliani’s  “broken windows” policing, police were given quotas that caused them to sweep up whole minority demographic groups, forcing the police to create laughably weak pretexts for their tickets.  In theory, the summons were supposed to be related to a nearby crime, but this was often not the case. Rather than focus on significant crime, police would be forced to cite scores of people on bogus charges such as  “blocking pedestrian traffic” because that was the only way they could meet their quotas.  Another favorite catchall for police was to cite people for “furtive movements“, despite the fact the police officers who cited this reason most were unable to define what the term means.  Police would pull down “suspects” pants and underware to search them for drugs and a culture of silence prevented accountability.


In the earlier era, Jack Maple had complained that the police only cared about the white and wealthy.  In the post-Jack Maple era, where the crime rate was lower nationwide, the police and politicians still only cared about the white and wealthy and looking good, but instead of ignoring minority neighborhoods or actually engaging in a partnership with the communities, in the new era they focused on building an image of toughness and  by creating an increasing amount of minority ‘activity” (tickets)  rather than fighting actual crime.  They would actually downgrade real crime while simultaneously increasing low-level harassment of minorities.

Making Broken Windows Race Neutral?

If one were to argue the new quota system was applied in a race-neutral manner, one would have to show that police adopted broken-windows policing in white neighborhoods as well.  And as the second episode describes: If the police make the mistake of issuing a citation to a white architect for riding his bike on the sidewalk, they’d find their boss would tell them to back off because such people have lawyers and connections.
A relevant question is whether this is solely a class thing — whether black architects who ride on the sidewalk get cited more often than white architects.  I suspect the answer is yes.  Upper-class black people have to dress and act much higher class than white people to get the same class benefit.  Riding a bike or walking is not an activity which separates you from the masses so you’re apt to be targeted, either by racist citizens reporting you for “riding while black” or by the police themselves.  I expect that a black man would situationally be able to achieve the same class benefit I have as a white man if they drove a luxury car that costs many times more than my Corolla and and if they dress 50% more formally.  But if they choose to go out for a run in shorts, their class benefit melts  because a runner can’t bring along their class signifiers.  It is my understanding that running in the dark while black is not the same experience I have when I go out for a run in the dark.


If you pay attention to the second episode, you’ll notice that they mention that this “broken windows” policing wasn’t confined to just New York City.   New York City was seen as a model city and it exported the model nationwide.  Fergusson Missouri had a huge number of summons per household and Sandra Bland (Link #3: Malcolm Gladwell) had a large number of unpaid fines for police citations.


Sandra Bland: Arrested for Resisting Arrest

You can dismiss this case as an extreme case of one bad apple, but Malcolm Gladwell says the arresting officer should not be written off as an anomaly.  In fact, the arresting officer is a model of how current policing philosophy and training intends police to operate.
After a difficult period of her life in Illinois, Bland moved to Texas to start a new life as a student in a small town in Texas.  The minute she left the University parking lot, a police officer manufactured a bogus charge of failing to signal as she pulled over to the side of the road in response to his aggressive driving.
This incident only got attention because she committed suicide after being jailed for 3 days.
I aknowlege Bland’s suicide is an anomily, but this officer’s behavior is not.


Dashcam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest

  1. The Texas police avoided accountability for their actions by withholding the video immediately before the stop where the police officer sets a trap to use a pretext for pulling her over.
  2. The police officer never responded to Bland’s request when asked for a reason why he was arresting Bland.  He was either too zoned-in in demanding she comply or he knew he couldn’t justify charging her with failure to signal.
  3. The officer later gave the rationalization that she was arrested for resisting arrest (This is a catch-22: you must first be legitimately arrested for a valid crime before the charge of resisting arrest can be applied).

Sandra Bland’s Phone Video of her Own Arrest


Broken windows policing is an entire movement whose police harassment falls disproportionately on minorities.  If you listen to the Joe Rogan episode you’ll hear Malcolm Gladwell describe how broken windows policing trains police to pull over hundreds of motorists for “bullshit reasons” with the hope of “hitting the jackpot” of finding one person with heroin in their trunk.



How Representative are Video Accounts?

I hear that some of the much publicized police incidents (such as the Michael Brown incident) are misrepresented in the media.  That may be true.


I also hear questions about how typical police mistreatment is of blacks that does not result in death.   If you believe Amber Ruffin’s claim, every black person she knows has stories about run-ins with the police.  Ruffin shares her experience that police are quick to pull a gun on a black woman and that the police will change their tone in an instant when they realize they are being watched by a white man.

I would also guess that there is a sizeable fraction of the police that I would characterize as “authoritarian” who demand compliance, rather than earning legitimacy.  They do not treat black citizens with the dignity they show to whites and yet they insist that even questionable orders that do not have have any bearing in law must be obeyed.


So to reiterate NY Professor Tom Tyler’s framework of legitimacy as applied to broken-windows policing:
  1. Standing: Do police give citizens a fair hearing and articulate legitimate reasons that support their actions rather than declaring that they have the authority to order citizens around and force them into compliance?
  2. Neutrality: Do police conduct themselves in a way that persuades citizens that there is a standard of law that applies equally to the police themselves and to all other people?
  3. Trustworthiness: Is the law arbitrary or likely to change?


One can argue about whether the intention of broken windows policing is racist, but I would argue that is better to first deal with the fact that American policing (like many other American institutions) has legitimacy problems.

White Americans who have a long history of condoning rebellion should not expect minorities to treat them as meek and polite Canadians would.  Rather, White Americans should expect legitimate resistance to contemporary policing philosophy.  The challenge is to channel legitimate frustration and anger into productive dialog, reconciliation, and reform.