Using speculative anecdotes and junk science to justify policies that negatively impact civil liberties is a crummy way to run a police department. Naturally, then, Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Charles Ramsey has decided to do just that.

Our colleagues at City Paper highlight the fact that Ramsey decided to go after the journalists there who reported facts police, apparently, find inconvenient. More specifically, the Philadelphia Police Department has begun using the “broken windows” theory first put forward in the early 1980s to justify policies that many believe encourage police harassment.

The broken windows theory basically says that minor offenses against “order” like—you guessed it—broken windows encourage more offenses against “order.” Those who subscribe to the theory believe that aggressive policing of neighborhoods for minor infractions like loitering improve neighborhoods.

Ramsey says that cracking down on minor offenses like urinating in public creates better neighborhoods. He also decided to attack the journalists during an interview on WHYY, presumably because they were reporting facts. To defend his department’s aggressive policies, Ramsey asserted on the radio that the “broken windows” theory “has obviously been proven to be true.”

This is not true.

Broken windows is not an academically supported theory. In fact, one of the authors of the theory, social scientist James Q. Wilson, said in 2004 that the theory was not supported by any evidence whatsoever, and it was “pure speculation” on his part. While almost no evidence seems to support “broken windows” as an effective strategy to improve neighborhoods, lots of evidence supports the theory that “broken windows” is actually bullshit that allows for police harassment and little else.

This peer-reviewed study from 2006, for instance, points out that no evidence supports the theory’s hypothesis that “maintaining order” by aggressively targeting minor offenses reduces crime . Likewise, this article demonstrates that the effect of broken windows theory-based aggressive police actions reduces crime next to nothing. Another  published this year points out that the whole theory is predicated on bullshit: After all, how do you measure “disorder” considering that “disorder” is purely subjective. Ironically, Ramsey himself talks about the differences in urban and suburban areas in terms of what is “orderly” in his radio interview.

Talking about the broken windows theory specifically just days ago, Steve Zeidman writing for the New York Daily News declared flatly that the theory “subjects minority and poor [people] to harassment for no good reason.” This is, in fact, true: Zeidman specifically talks about the recent death of New Yorker Eric Garner while in police custody. That tragedy has garnered national opprobrium because of the YouTube video of Garner’s arrest, which seems to show a police officer putting the asthmatic Garner in a chokehold. Garner repeatedly complains that he cannot breathe while police are manhandling him.

Garner later died.

In the video, Garner does not seem to resist or antagonize police: Instead, he is heard complaining that the police routinely harass him for no apparent reason, a complaint heard often in Philadelphia, too.

Now, it’s easy to see why Ramsey would specifically criticize the article. The authors insist that many residents targeted by the police department’s “broken windows” actions “say they have suffered under the crackdown.”

Then again, if you were trying to justify more autonomy, more authority, and more money for your department, you’d probably rely on junk science and attack the press, too.

About The Author

Contributing columnist

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His @PhillyWeekly column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” took the First Place Spotlight Award for weekly newspaper commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists in both 2014 and 2015 and the Second Place Award for weekly newspaper commentary in the U.S. and Canada from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in 2014; and, the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association presented him with the Edith Hughes Emerging Journalist Award in 2015. Along with his column, Josh blogs daily for PW on various topics including queer culture and news, mass transit, politics, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, civil liberties, activism, media and everything else Philly.

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