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The Seductive Appeal of “Broken Windows” in the 21st Century


The modern American policing tradition has reached a crossroads. In the contemporary moment, police officials and policymakers must decide to whether or not to resolve long-standing issues plaguing the US criminal justice system. Given the current state of America’s overworked court systems, overburdened penal institutions, and over-policed minority populations, lawmakers know that maintaining the status quo—or worse, reverting back to antiquated policies—will only prolong the decades-long battle to improve criminal justice practices. Under the Trump Administration, the prospects for finding comprehensive solutions that ensure police efficacy, build public trust, and inspire police-community collaboration are grim. Trump officials have openly and unapologetically endorsed outdated law-and-order policies that have proven to be both unhelpful and counterproductive to reforming the police.

Even the newly appointed US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, proudly supports returning to criminal policies enacted during Reagan’s War on Drugs. The Chicago Tribune reported that General Sessions plans to ramp up drug and gun prosecutions and rollback many of the sentencing reforms passed under President Obama in order to revive mandatory minimums.[22] Although crime rates have yet to reach comparable levels under President Reagan, General Sessions insists that spikes in urban homicides justify the revival of heavy-handed crackdowns on crime and disorder in the streets. To further this goal, General Sessions hired Steven H. Cook, former cop and the President of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys. Cook’s infamous reputation as a tough-on-crime advocate made him an ideal candidate for Jeff Sessions’ burgeoning vision for the Department of Justice. For years, Cook has traveled nation-wide and appeared on major news networks singing the praises of order maintenance policing, vehemently claiming: “The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed…I don’t think that’s hard-line. I think that’s exactly what the American people expect of their Department of Justice.”[23]

Since the dawn of the Trump presidency, federal officials have cast the challenges of modern American policing as products of an ‘anti-police atmosphere.’ However, the contentious rhetoric and inflammatory debates about police brutality continues to distract policymakers and the general public from the central issues at stake. Police reform efforts at their core are not about demonizing the police or promoting “anti-police” sentiments. Instead, initiatives to improve relations between officers and the communities they serve have the central objective of ensuring the equal protection and general welfare of all Americans, regardless of their race and zip code. In order to accomplish meaningful reforms, we must contextualize recurring problems within law enforcement agencies within the larger history of race, politics, and the development of American institutions. Rather than recycling the same reforms filled with weak solutions and divisive dogma, politicians and academics must confront and evaluate the tumultuous history of police. Reformers must begin to examine the police as an evolving sociopolitical institution with an unusual amount of discretionary authority compared to other publicly regulated agencies.

American policing has undergone dramatic fluctuations and transformations in its design, purpose, and function since its inception in the 1840s. As a result, the role of the American police officer has often been a hotly contested drama amongst law enforcement officials, politicians, and public intellectuals like Wilson and Kelling throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Given the complexity of criminal justice issues burdening marginalized minorities concentrated in US cities, the need to contextualize age-old problems related to policing is urgent. Ultimately, overcoming these challenges requires a renewed commitment to moving past outdated and ineffectual policing practices and crafting nuanced laws and policies specifically aimed at regulating police, uplifting the urban underclass, and repairing broken windows.

[22] Horwitz, Sari. "In Jeff Sessions' Justice Department, a retro feel to the war on drugs." April 09, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2017.

[23] Ibid.

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