In an episode of our weekly Bloggingheads “Fireside Chats” series, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal talked to Aaron Brady from The New Inquiry about how James Q. Wilson’s famous “Broken Windows” essay has changed the way the police force acts. The two discuss the purpose of the police and ask why policing has become so aggressive, as seen in the Occupy movement when the police escalated situations before any of the protesters were a threat or legally doing anything wrong. While many attribute police behavior to racist attitudes and economic incentives, Mike reveals another story. He points out that “the police are not there to solve crimes, the police are there to maintain order, and that involves determining who is an insider, who is an outsider, and strictly policing those boundaries.”
How did it get this way? Mike argues that while the classical liberal idea used to be “that things that should be crimed are things that cause direct harm,” broken windows theory has emerged as a combined effort of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. He notes that the main point of the theory “is to create a kind of logic for going after squeegee men in New York, to go after the homeless, to go after people carrying minor amounts of drugs and… these kind of nuisances or obnoxious public behavior create the conditions for disorder.”
While most middle class americans have a perception of cops developed from shows like Law and Order, where police come to the scene after a crime and carefully assess what went wrong, Mike says that the force now does the opposite. He says they are “freaked out about this imagery of lurid people” and that “when you see this imagery of lurid Occupy Oakland people showing up even if they’re not directly breaking the law, they’re creating the conditions for disorder.” Police see protesters at UC Davis as starting a slippery slope toward violence, aggression, and more people showing up in the future — so they pre-emptively act violently to prevent a worse situation. Mike also argues that James Q. Wilson “takes it for granted that the police will always be pushing the boundaries of the law and that the law will always be improvisational at the edge,” as though the police only ever engage in crisis situations where the law can get swept under the rug.
Check out the full video below for Mike and Aaron’s discussion of the campus protest origins of the Occupy movement, the newly released report on the pepper spraying of UC Davis students, and for their take on capitalism, The Wire, and Teddy Roosevelt: