Identifying the Summum Bonum of Policing: Strong Neighborhoods

In recent years, research in major U.S. cities has found that collective efficacy, defined as “... cohesion and trust among residents combined with a willingness to intervene for the common good,” can work to reduce the negative effects of widespread disadvantage and reduce violent crime (Sampson et al., 1997; Sampson, 2012). Researchers have demonstrated that in places where collective efficacy exists at high levels, violent crime fails to thrive— even in extremely disadvantaged communities. More recently, research at Yale University Medical School, New Haven, Connecticut, makes a direct link between collective efficacy and reduced exposure to firearm violence (Peart, 2014). This information may be important to police and other government officials as they explore ways to reduce violent crime through means other than aggressive street-level enforcement. Perhaps the police are able to help communities foster collective efficacy through yet-to-be envisioned policing practices (Nolan et al., 2004; Weisburd et al., 2015a). Indeed, our central argument in this chapter is that the common good of policing should be working to increase collective efficacy and build strong neighborhoods where they partner with residents to maintain safety and enhance the quality of life. We argue next that doing so offers the best avenue to aid investigations and increase clearance rates.

However, rather than police working to build strong neighborhoods, it is arguable that the dominant tactics of recent years may have actively worked against this goal. For decades now, police leaders have vigorously defended zero-tolerance enforcement of minor offenses as a primary strategy for curbing violent crime. This approach is based on the view that fixing a community’s broken windows (a term used to signify all forms of disorder in a neighborhood), the police can prevent more serious crime. The idea behind the broken windows thesis (Wilson and Kelling, 1982) is that untended neighborhood disorder makes residents fearful as they see it as a sign that the community is declining and becoming unsafe. These residents in turn withdraw from the community, lowering informal social controls that leave the area more vulnerable to crime. Advocates of this model thus suggest that police can best prevent crime by targeting disorder and stopping this cycle from occurring, and potentially helping communities take back the streets. It is important to note that the original advocates of broken windows policing (Wilson and Kelling, 1982; Kelling and Coles, 1996) suggested that police needed to work hand in hand with the community to identify and address disorder problems and restore informal social controls; however, in practice, the police have opted to define disorder on their own and target it through aggressive zero-tolerance approaches, increased misdemeanor arrests, and aggressive tactics such as SQF.

In policing and political circles, these aggressive tactics are viewed as effective, largely based on their highly publicized usage during the large crime drop in New York City during the 1990s (Bratton and Knobler, 1998; Giuliani and Kurson, 2002). However, even in New York City, evidence is mixed with some studies claiming aggressive targeting of disorder contributed to the crime decline (Kelling and Sousa, 2001) and other studies finding no significant impact (Harcourt and Ludwig, 2006). More generally, a recent meta-analysis of police strategies targeting disorder found a modest impact on crime (Braga et al., 2015), but a companion article noted that it was impossible to know whether this was due to the mechanisms of the broken windows model (reduced fear, increased collective efficacy) or simple deterrence/ incapacitation from aggressive levels of police activity and increased arrests (Weisburd et al., 2015b).

Most importantly, regardless of any short-term impacts on crime, research suggests that broken windows policing may not be effective in the long term, for as we have seen, it can work to put the community and the police at odds creating even worse conditions. As it has long been noted, when the police and other agents of formal control lose legitimacy, crime is likely to increase (Tyler, 1990, 2004). It has been argued that the very definition of what constitutes disorderly behaviors/conditions worthy of police attention can undermine police-community relationships as such approaches are often seen as a tool used by those in power to oppress poor, minority areas as such approaches risk forcing middle-class values on every neighborhood (Harcourt, 2001; Herbert, 2001). This leads to an increase in negative police contacts as the police are aggressively targeting the issues that may not be of concern to the community, and legitimacy is undermined when they feel the police do not share their priorities (Stoutland, 2001). More generally, aggressive enforcement at the community level is likely to undermine legitimacy as residents begin to feel like targets rather than partners of the police (Rosenbaum, 2006).

Indeed, the aggressive law enforcement practices aimed at fixing broken windows have been found to generate negative impacts for residents and police-community relations. For instance, one study found that despite reducing disorder, aggressive policing in Jersey City, New Jersey, actually made people more fearful and isolated, thus preventing them from being engaged in collaborative activities to prevent or solve crimes (Hinkle and Weisburd, 2008). Another study of the new york police department (NYPD) efforts in the 1990s found that despite the rapid reduction in crime, complaints against the police increased dramatically as they ramped up their aggressive policing campaign (Greene, 1999). This trend has continued into recent years with the uproar over their aggressive SQF tactics leading up to the Floyd v. City of New York (2013) case. Recent studies have noted that, although the aggressive use of SQFs in hot spots likely decreases crime at least modestly in the short term, they are likely not worth the intensive requirements on police manpower and reduced police legitimacy, which could lead to backfire effects in the long term (Weisburd et al., 2014; Weisburd et al., 2015b).

As such, the police focus on aggressive order maintenance and street- level enforcement is troubling, especially in light of the findings that collective efficacy mitigates the negative effects of disadvantage and can prevent violent crime. As these approaches risk undermining police legitimacy, harming communities, and leaving areas more vulnerable to crime, an increasing number of criminologists have suggested that the game of policing (to use our terminology) needs to change. Put simply, arguments suggest that the police might be better off first fixing broken relationships with the community and then working together to fix the broken windows (Nolan et al., 2004; Markovic, 2009; Weisburd et al., 2015a). Such approaches may lead to the reductions in fear and increases in collective efficacy suggested by the broken windows thesis (Weisburd et al., 2015b) and ultimately build the type of strong communities that we argue should be the common good of policing.

One way to think about police reform in this way is depicted in Figure 5.3. The horizontal axis represents crime as being experienced from low to high. The vertical axis depicts efficacy beliefs about crime control in a particular

A conceptual framework for ethics in policing

Figure 5.3 A conceptual framework for ethics in policing.

neighborhood or community. At the top, there are high levels of collective efficacy, that is, the belief that residents and the police share responsibility for crime control and are willing to participate as needed. Moving downward on the vertical line, we have low collective efficacy. Low collective efficacy results when the residents know they are coresponsible for controlling crime in neighborhoods, but they do not expect others to join in for a variety of reasons, such as fear, or frustration, or feeling disconnected from others. At the very bottom of the vertical axis is high police efficacy. This means residents think the police alone are primarily responsible for crime control and they are doing a good job. Being able to call a good plumber or electrician to fix a problem in your home is similar to this form of efficacy. The expert is going to do the work for you. When residents expect the police alone to protect the community, but are unhappy with the results or the methods they employ, low police efficacy emerges. In summary, the police and the community either assume they are coresponsible for crime control-which is the condition above the horizontal line—or assume the police should do it—represented by area underneath the horizontal line.

The conceptual view in Figure 5.3 helps us see four neighborhood types: strong, vulnerable, chaotic, and responsive. Strong neighborhoods are places where crime is low and residents see themselves as coresponsible with the police in dealing with crime. Vulnerable neighborhoods also have low crime rates, but residents assume the police alone should address any crime-related problems that arise. Chaotic neighborhoods have high crime rates, and the residents expect the police alone to fix things. Responsive neighborhoods are places where crime is high, but the residents know they must pitch in to make the neighborhood safe.

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