Sometime in the late ‘80s, I was living in New York City and found myself on a cab ride from hell. The driver — who may have been stoned — was swerving all over the road, practically taking out trash cans at high speed, while I white-knuckled it, speechless. He must know what he’s doing, I remember trying to convince myself. He’s a professional.
Well, when it comes to the terror ride that is our city’s fight against the scourge of gun violence, we’re all me in that backseat — silent, anxious and, most of all, deluded into thinking that those in whom we place our trust are actually competent.
I was reminded last week of the helpless feeling I experienced in the back of that cab, when the law enforcement policy of Stop and Frisk made a sudden comeback in our public conversation, but not in a way that ought to give you any hope that a thoughtful discussion is about to take place. It started with the musings of Council President Darrell Clarke, who wondered: “We have a lot of citizens in the streets of Philadelphia talking about ‘When are we gonna look at stop-and-frisk in a constitutionally enacted way?’”
“Right now, no one seems to fear going out in the street with an illegal gun,” Nutter said in his first term. “We have to change the mindset out on the street. People are going to know that anywhere you go in this city, we’re going to use constitutional methods to confiscate your gun.”
The mayor responded by saying he was “not willing to bring that back,” dismissing it as “just randomly going through pockets.” The Democratic Socialist wing of Council — members Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks — weighed in, releasing a lengthy statement to “reject calls to revive racist and unconstitutional stop and frisk policies.”
It was a depressingly superficial back and forth, featuring dueling bumper-sticker slogans. The councilmembers’ statement, for example, spent more time talking about valid long-term solutions to gun violence, like cleaning and greening neighborhoods and opening rec centers and libraries on the weekends than on strategies to immediately restore the rule of law on lawless streets.
What are the amino acids of public policymaking? They include facts, persuasively marshaled; clear goals, and timetables that are both aspirational and within reach. Did we hear any of that this week when it came to Stop and Frisk? Welcome to Philadelphia, where solutions enter a fact-free zone.
What Stop and Frisk did — and didn’t — do
Cards on the table: I supported the policy of Stop, Question and Frisk as advanced by Mayor Michael Nutter in 2007. The city had suffered through some 400 murders and then, as now, the policy was constitutional, in keeping with the Supreme Court ruling in Terry v. Ohio. Law enforcement stops were required to stem from reasonable suspicion, the Court held; a cop seeing a pedestrian in a parka on a hot summer day on a hot-spot crime corner could legitimately suspect that a gun was shielded from sight, justifying questioning.
That seemed, uh, reasonable at the time. But, as we learned from the practice of the policy in New York and even here — where only 3 percent of stops actually resulted in gun possession arrests — Stop and Frisk was disproportionately used against Black and Brown citizens and contributed to a sense that police, rather than being part of the communities they had sworn to protect and serve, had become a type of occupying force. I’ve spoken to many Black men whose first interaction with police took place when they were 8 or 9 years old, pulled over for riding a bike to a friend’s house. (“Whose bike is that?” would be a common kick-off to the questioning.)
In New York, a federal judge in 2013 found that Stop and Frisk was “a policy of indirect racial profiling” and violated the constitutional rights of Black and Brown residents. As a result, stringent procedures were put in place to justify random stops, and their rate plummeted. Yet, crime remained at historic lows until the pandemic ushered in a new, and stubborn, wave of gun violence.
That would seem to suggest that Stop and Frisk was not a critical factor in the historic public safety strides made in New York throughout the mayoral term of Michael Bloomberg. Indeed, according to Penn criminologist John D. MacDonald, it was the deployment of extra police to high-crime neighborhoods that lowered crime rates by between 12 and 15 percent, compared to a likely 2 percent reduction attributable to Stop and Frisk.
That said, Stop and Frisk could play a role in a smart overall public safety strategy. Legendary police commissioner Bill Bratton, who turned Boston, New York and Los Angeles from crime-ridden cities into safe oases, argues for Stop and Frisk in moderation with an interesting analogy. It’s like using chemotherapy to fight cancer, he says: “While too high a dose can be fatal, the right amount can save a person’s or a city’s life.”
That’s especially the case when we consider the policy’s deterrent effect. One glaring difference between our current mayor and his predecessor is that Michael Nutter let it be known that there would be consequences for acts that tear at the social order. “Right now, no one seems to fear going out in the street with an illegal gun,” Nutter said in his first term, which saw a historic turnaround in the city’s murder rate, ultimately posting a 60-year low in homicides. “We have to change the mindset out on the street. People are going to know that anywhere you go in this city, we’re going to use constitutional methods to confiscate your gun.”
What’s so frustrating about what we talk about when we talk about gun violence is that we actually know what works. But Clarke, Kenney and the Council Socialists issuing predictable Stop and Frisk bromides distracts from real problem-solving. I’ve written often about the policies that work elsewhere to turn the tide on gun violence. Rather than recite chapter and verse one more time, let’s just revisit one. Again, it’s instructive to look to New York.
“Broken Windows” cuts crime … and incarceration
There, if Stop and Frisk wasn’t responsible for the historic drop in crime in the late ‘90s and early aughts, what was? When Penn criminologist MacDonald credits the deployment of extra police in those years, he’s really referencing a surge that is often linked to a strategy of policing that came to be known as the Broken Windows Theory.
Oh, no, he didn’t. Isn’t Broken Windows discredited? Racist, even? Hells, no. In the popular debate, Broken Windows has often erroneously gotten lumped in with Stop and Frisk tactics — and the concomitant legitimate concerns of racial profiling. Broken Windows, on the other hand, is a theory of policing that mitigates the virus of disorder, something much needed in a city where shots ring out on crowded streets and where shoplifters are effectively playing The Price Is Right in retail outlets every day, knowing that, so long as they don’t exceed $500 in stolen goods from a CVS, our district attorney is unlikely to charge them with theft.
“Good broken windows policing seeks partners to address it: social workers, city code enforcers, business improvement district staff, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, and others,” Kelling said a few years ago. “Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort — not the first.”
Broken Windows grew out of an Atlantic magazine article written in the 1980s by Harvard’s James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University. At a time when policing was mostly reactive, they argued that small things matter in communities, and that when nothing is done about the small things, they grow to become big things.
“We expressed this in a metaphor,” explained Kelling a few years ago in Politico, prior to his passing. “Just as a broken window left untended in a building is a sign that nobody cares, leading typically to more broken windows — more damage — so disorderly conditions and behaviors left untended in a community are signs that nobody cares and lead to fear of crime, more serious crime, and urban decay.”
Here’s what’s critical: They came to this conclusion by actually listening to those in poor, mostly minority communities who were most proximate to the problem. Even in neighborhoods with high murder rates, residents would list comparatively minor transgressions like graffiti, teens drinking beer in public parks, and subway turnstile jumping as their top concerns. Why? Because they’d seen the degree to which, once those conditions ran rampant, gun violence was not far behind.
Alas, once Michael Brown was killed by police after being stopped for jaywalking in Ferguson and Eric Garner was choked to death by New York police for selling loose cigarettes, Broken Windows fell out of favor. But those tragedies were not actual examples of Broken Windows policing, which was never intended to be about making arrests. (In fact, a 2013 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that Broken Windows led to decarceration.)
“Broken-windows policing is a highly discretionary set of activities that seeks the least intrusive means of solving a problem — whether that problem is street prostitution, drug dealing in a park, graffiti, abandoned buildings, or actions such as public drunkenness,” wrote Kelling. “Moreover, depending on the problem, good broken windows policing seeks partners to address it: social workers, city code enforcers, business improvement district staff, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, and others. The goal is to reduce the level of disorder in public spaces so that citizens feel safe, are able to use them, and businesses thrive. Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort — not the first.”
Studies have shown that Broken Windows policing reduces not only crime, but also mass incarceration. As such, it should be embraced by progressives, particularly in cities, like ours, experiencing record levels of disorder and lawlessness.
Don’t let the likes of Gym, Gauthier and Brooks spin you on Michael Nutter as some sort of modern-day Bull Connor, and don’t let Darrell Clarke’s uninformed Stop and Frisk musings be seen as a serious policy proposal. Don’t like the term Broken Windows? It’s too tainted by its adjacency to Stop and Frisk? Fine. Let’s change the name. Let’s call it Preventative Policing.
The point is, there is a way out of this, and the answer is not abusive, fascistic policing. It is, instead, embracing the daily grind of maintaining order by keeping small things from becoming big things. Wouldn’t it be nice if our elected officials could put together an overarching framework for combatting crime and disorder, one that is both tactical and philosophical, instead of just being distracted by shiny object after shiny object?
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MOST POPULAR NEWS ON THE CITIZEN RIGHT NOWHeader photo by Jared Piper / Philadelphia City Council