What is the Broken Window Theory and How do Pennsylvania Police Abuse It? | Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC

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What is the Broken Window Theory and How do Pennsylvania Police Abuse It?

Police abuse is a hot topic that is constantly being debated in the news. In recent weeks, due to the Staten Island chokehold death and the Ferguson shooting, police abuse has been on our radars even more. Many people have seen these crackdowns on minor crimes in poorer, mostly minority-filled communities as racial discrimination and have raised questions about the inherent unfairness of profiling used in police tactics.

Many of the contested actions are a part of the greater policing model based on the “Broken Windows” theory of police force strategy. The broken windows theory was first developed by criminologists George Kelling and James Wilson and articulated in an Atlantic article in 1982. This theory states that the best way to prevent more serious crimes is to reduce minor infractions, thereby proving that the crimes will be noticed and punished.

It gets its name from the metaphor used to illustrate this reasoning: a building with a broken window is more likely to be vandalized even more. Thus, a community with small crimes is more likely to be the target of more serious crimes. “If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passers-by, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place,” wrote Kelling and Wilson on the phenomenon.

Is the Broken Window theory really just justification for police abuses?

In recent years, this theory has come under criticism for the way it is actually carried out. The broken window theory allows police to have arguably too much discretion over what crimes they choose to arrest citizens for. In many communities, especially poorer communities or communities composed mainly of ethnic or racial minorities, this leads to prejudicial prosecutions for relatively insignificant crimes such as loitering or jaywalking. This is especially concerning when the crimes are not considered crimes by a majority of a community.

Many minor arrests are unfairly being over-prosecuted, simply to try and prevent larger crimes. While crime prevention is a worthy goal, police tactics based on the broken windows theory may not be the best practice. “Conceptually, to the extent broken windows is an enforcement strategy that is applied equally in every community throughout America, there is no constitutional problem, but what we see in practice is that the broken windows strategy is largely deployed in black and Latino communities” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries a Democrat from New York to U.S. World and News Report

The backlash over many of these events where overzealous police hurt innocent citizens or overreact to a minor crime has sparked an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Hopefully the report on police tactics will lead to more balanced and fairer pursuits of justice. No police tactic should be allowed if it is going to lead to abuse.

If your rights have been violated by law enforcement in Pennsylvania, we can help. Our clients have frequently had their rights trampled on that have lead to complications during arrests and evidentiary issues. Give us a call at any time for a free consultation with Mike or Samir, both of whom are experienced Pittsburgh criminal lawyers – (412) 281-2146.