How Do You Apply Broken Windows to a Tent???

NPR did a long piece (14 minutes) last Sunday on Skid Row and walking around with police and "residents" of the largest homeless encampment in North America.  The story just glossed over the flaws in the Broken Window Theory of law enforcement and stepped right into the relationship with the police.  The San Francisco Examiner did a better job showing the fallout of this policy of strict enforcement of even minor infractions of the law

The report starts with some defining of the terms which includes the "Safer Cities" initiative.  Police Chief William Bratton is the Johnnie Appleseed of this project and leading proponent of the theory.  He brought both the New York and Los Angeles police forces into this zero tolerance theory of policing after Bratton was chief of both departments.  Kelly McEvers is the author of this story and Tom Dreisbach was a correspondent for NPR working on this story.

DREISBACH: The idea is to cite or arrest people for the little stuff - jaywalking, drinking in public, blocking sidewalks.

MCEVERS: You know, that whole broken windows approach that was made famous by ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

DREISBACH: If you stop people from committing the little crimes...

MCEVERS: ...They'll be less likely to commit the big crimes.

No one saw the irony of talking about "broken windows" in the context of hundreds of tents. There are no windows to break in a tent.   Skid Row is the break down of society, and community policing in a chaotic society has to be different than in the suburbs.  A neighborhood falling down may need a strong police presence to keep it from tipping over the edge.  A neighborhood without order, basic sanitation, and safety needs about 1,000 things before a they need a strong police show of force.  Ticketing and jailing residents of Skid Row only prolongs their stay on the streets.  Low barriers housing is the key, but it is not cheap. 

What if jail were better than living on the streets?  What if the debt cycle from all the broken window tickets mean the person will never be able to find stability?  What if the police begin to see the city as a lost cause and become fatalistic about the residents?  Where do homeless people with alcohol problems consume alcohol if they have an addiction--everywhere is an open container?  Where do people go to the bathroom if no business will allow them to use their precious facilities?  What if the rest of society decides that the Skid Row community is not worth the trouble?  What if a desperate population begins to confront the police with every ticket written?   Why wouldn't NPR cover the absurdity of punishing people for broken windows on a tent?

Brian Davis

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