Rafael A. Mangual joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss barriers to enacting effective crime-fighting policies.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Rafael Mangual, the Nick Ohnell fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a member of the Council on Criminal Justice. His writing on crime, jail violence, civil justice reform, and other criminological matters has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and many other outlets, in addition to City Journal. Ralf is the author of Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and De-Policing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most.

Today we’re going to discuss his essay “Can We Get Back to Tougher Policing?” which appears in our spring issue and examines barriers to enacting effective crime-fighting policies. Ralf has been on the show before, and it’s great to have you back on.

Rafael Mangual: It’s always great to be with you, Brian. Thank you.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, this essay is a very useful overview of where we are at this moment in criminal justice policy in the country and in policing. Forty years ago, one of the most important public policy essays ever published appeared in the Atlantic, and it was called “Broken Windows”. It offered a simple but insightful idea, and this was authored by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, two noted thinkers on crime issues. So this essay argued that public order matters. Disorder leads to further disorder. And visible signs of disorder, if unaddressed, tend to make an area vulnerable to more serious crime. So, for listeners unfamiliar with this concept, I wonder if you can just give us a summary of what became known as the broken windows theory of policing and also how it worked when police forces began to adopt it into practice.

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. The broken windows theory is really quite fascinating, in part because it’s based on a very simple observation, right? It’s this idea that once you have a sort of visible sign of disorder, and there are some experiments that actually use broken windows, if that disorder goes unaddressed, it’s only a matter of time until that same public space falls into further levels of disorder. And the question becomes sort of why that is. And what George Kelling and James Q. Wilson offered in that essay was a compelling explanation as to the why. And it was really an explanation that tapped into the psychology of humanity.

When we, as humans, see disorder in public spaces, when we see antisocial behavior engaged in in public spaces, we don’t just stop there. Our brains see what’s going on, and we interpret it as a sign of vulnerability. When there is graffiti or you walk into a subway station and you can smell urine, what that tells you is that people have engaged in that very antisocial behavior in that space, and that knowledge communicates to you that no one’s guarding the space, right? There aren’t any what criminologists would call capable guardians that are overseeing the public space in question. So your brain kind of takes it a step further and says, “Well, if someone felt secure enough to urinate on this subway platform or to tag this train with graffiti, they were pretty confident that no one was going to intervene. And if no one’s going to intervene, then that means anything goes in this particular public space.”

And the more disorder that we see in public spaces, the more that we interpret that disorder as a sign of insecurity. And the less secure that we feel in public spaces, the more that we abandon those public spaces, the more timid that we become when we’re forced to enter those public spaces, which is how those spaces become increasingly more vulnerable to more serious kinds of crime. Because as pro-social actors become more timid and/or leave those spaces altogether, they become increasingly more attractive to the antisocial forces that ultimately bring with them more serious levels of crime. So that was the key insight.

Brian Anderson: In other words, that the social order matters. And in these circumstances, it is dissolving, leaving chaos in its wake.

Rafael Mangual: That’s exactly right, because those signs of a deterioration of social order tell people that the space is vulnerable. It tells people that they’re not safe, it tells people that no one’s in charge, which translates into a deep-seated sense of insecurity, and that affects behavior.

Now, the way that that theory was sort of integrated into policing strategies and policing tactics was really by reorienting police around the problem of public disorder. Up through the 1970s, policing was largely seen, including by police executives, as a responsive endeavor, right? You were answering 9-1-1 calls, you were responding to reports of crime. There was very little in the way of proactive patrolling going on. Now, obviously, police officers were on patrol, and they witnessed a crime occurring, they would get out and intervene. But what broken windows did was it reprioritized public order as a legitimate target of police attention, in part because there was a recognition that that mattered to the public, and it affected the public’s perceptions of how safe they were.

Now, by prioritizing public disorder, that meant police were going to now get involved in these kinds of lower-level instances of offending and infraction commission, things like jumping the turnstile, public urination, open-container violations. And over time, it didn’t take very long to realize that there was a sort of unexpected benefit to this kind of prioritization, which is that police began to realize that contrary to what they, I think, initially thought, which was that kind of going after these low-level offenses was beneath that, right? They wanted to go after the serious crime. But what they learned was that you could actually uncover quite a bit of really serious crime by initiating these interactions for these lower-level infractions.

So what you would see is the intervention of police with, say, a turnstile jumper. And when they would take that person into custody, they might pat him down and then find an illegal firearm or discover that he has an open warrant. So as policing evolved, it started to really understand and uncover the value of proactive order enforcement and order maintenance. And that really transitioned policing from a sort of responsive endeavor to a preventative endeavor. Because what the broken windows theory posited was that you could actually promote safety in a public space simply by maintaining the level of public order in that space. And what that does is it communicates to the criminals that someone is in charge. So the same way that the average citizen sees disorder and interprets that as a signal of vulnerability, as a signal that no one’s in charge. High levels of order, including visible police presences, communicates to the antisocial forces in our communities that their behavior is not going to be tolerated, and so they tend to try and find somewhere else to go.

Brian Anderson: And this became, when the New York Police Department implemented it, and then later the LAPD and other forces across the country, it really became a major driver of the revolution in public safety that took place 20 years ago, 25 years ago now, turned around a lot of cities. But the method, however effective in practice, did lead to a very significant pushback. And now we’re in a situation where a lot of these broken windows approaches have been rolled back, right?

Rafael Mangual: Well, that’s exactly right. Like any endeavor in the area of policing, it’s going to be concentrated where the problems are most pronounced. And if certain demographic groups are overrepresented in those places, well, then that’s going to produce disparities in the enforcement numbers. And it was those disparities that were really latched onto to make the case against proactive policing. And it was a very, very effective tactic by police critics.

And I think it was helped along by the fact that proactive policing was so successful over the years, because as crime levels went down, there was a sort of growing level of discomfort with the sort of tough posture that policing had taken because it seemed to be mismatched to the situation on the ground. Now, what people underestimated was just how quickly the situation could turn around once police backed off. But the idea was that to whatever extent, this kind of more aggressive posture, particularly towards lower-level offenses was necessary back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, things had improved to such a degree that that approach was no longer necessary.

So, it was a combination of this sort of hyper-focus on racial disparities and enforcement, combined with this sort of rhetorical insistence that a tougher posture was no longer necessary in light of the lower levels of crime that led to a pullback on this front. And it also led to police becoming kind of a target of civil rights offices through the DOJ and private lawyers who began suing police departments for violations of civil rights based on these sort of racial disparities, and that were relatively successful there.

Now, what is fascinating to me is that as crime has gone up in recent years, and there’s no question that it has, right? In 2020, the United States saw its single largest one-year homicide spike in American history, at the very least, the largest spike that we’ve seen in the hundred years. The data before that point is a little sketchy. But what that has done is it’s re-sparked this conversation about whether we should go back to this kind of tougher posture. And the reason I wanted to write this piece is because I thought that debate, while interesting from an academic perspective, really was kind of putting the cart before the horse because what I don’t think people fully appreciate is that policing has taken such a hit over the last generation, that even to the extent that there was 100 percent buy-in, that we should go back to this sort of more aggressive approach that really prioritized public order enforcement and proactivity, in a lot of parts of the country, that’s just impossible now.

Brian Anderson: Well, that’s really a good lead-in to my next question. As you write in this essay, police departments are suffering a recruitment, retention, and morale crisis that makes it very difficult, even if we were, as you just suggested, to go back to a more proactive policing, makes it more difficult to carry that out. So what’s behind this recruitment, retention, morale crisis? They’re all really related. And how significant is it?

Rafael Mangual: It’s really quite significant. Policing levels in some American cities are at their lowest point in more than a generation, and that’s without even taking into account population growth in a lot of these places. So in terms of the scope of the problem, it really can be quite pronounced. Using the NYPD as an example, at the turn of the century, the NYPD had 40,000 officers at its disposal. The official count that was last taken, I think put it at just under 33,500. But the department is seeing about 200 retirements a month, and it’s certainly not getting that back in the way of new recruits, so it’s a really significant change.

Now, what’s driving that is an interesting question. I suspect it’s a combination of things, but at the top of the list, I would have to put the just massive decline in morale within departments that has really driven people to leave the force either before they would have otherwise, but certainly early as well. So one of the things that we’re seeing is a lot of police officers who are in large urban departments who are not yet eligible for retirement are leaving those departments for other police departments in lower crime, suburban and exurban and rural counties, which are now actively recruiting from large American cities.

So it’s not unusual to walk through New York City and actually see billboards advertising hiring bonuses for police departments in Florida or Texas or Tennessee. I think for a time, there was a large billboard in Times Square doing just that. So you have police officers leaving large urban departments where they perceive their risk of being thrown under the bus after being involved in a potentially viral use-of-force incident as being elevated, and where they perceive their level of support as being lower. We see those officers moving to departments and locales where they perceive their levels of support to be higher, where they are more confident that they’re going to have the political backing of the state or city or municipality in question.

You also have people who are eligible for retirement who would otherwise have stayed for, say, an extra five, 10, or 15 years past that point of retirement pursuing, say, the executive track, no longer choosing to go that route, likely for a lot of the same reasons. And then you have the sort of widespread demonization of the institution, I think dissuading lots of people from taking the job in the first place.

And this is something that I kind of have some personal experience with. When I was getting ready to graduate college in 2010, I took the LSAT and the NYPD exam just a few days apart, and I did very well on both. And ultimately, my father, who is a retired NYPD detective, talked me out of becoming an NYPD officer. And if you would’ve heard his explanation as to why I shouldn’t have taken the job back then, and this is prior to BLM and Ferguson and all of the stuff that’s sort of gone on in the last 10 years, he would say that, “It’s very possible that you take this job, get involved in a use-of-force incident that doesn’t look good on camera, they’ll plaster you on the cover of the New York Post, and the department will throw you under the bus. The mayor will allow you to get sued. They’ll fire you, and you’ll have eight years of experience that doesn’t translate into any line of work. And you’ll have to fight a prosecution and a civil lawsuit.”

And he didn’t paint a very enticing picture, which was strange to me at the time because I always understood his own perception of his career to be quite positive. I think he felt that policing was his calling and that he really helped a lot of people over the course of his career. And yet, from what he was seeing, it was a career that was completely unfit for his own son. So, ultimately, I decided to go to law school. Now, I’m not saying that I would become the best cop in the world, but I think it’s certainly the case that my story is not unique. And that there are a lot of people who would’ve had positive impacts on their departments, choosing not to take the job of police officer. And the people who make that choice are likely to be the sort of people who have other options, people who have high IQs, higher levels of educational attainment, higher levels of psychological stability, exactly the kinds of people that you would want to go into the field of policing that are choosing not to.

So you have this sort of dual problem. People who are on the force now either leaving departments that they see as risky or retiring from the profession altogether. And then you also have potential recruits no longer pursuing the policing career. And that has contributed to a significant shortfall in police departments that has taken a devastating toll on some communities. I give some examples in the piece, but I was shocked to find more than one example of the following.

In Pittsburgh, that police department chose very recently to stop responding to 9-1-1 calls that did not involve a crime in progress between the hours of 3:00 and 7:00 AM because of staffing shortages. In the city of Houston, police have suspended more than a quarter million criminal cases because of a lack of personnel to investigate. In Baltimore, there was a day that was reported very widely in that city where there was such a staffing shortage, and that department is short some four or five hundred officers, where in one of the most dangerous districts in that city, the Southern District, which has, I think more than 60,000 residents, there were just three police officers on patrol for an entire shift. And those are just a few examples of a problem that is becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Brian Anderson: Really a kind of downward spiral you’re describing, and the key question is what can be done to reverse it? What can make policing once again an option for the kind of people you’re describing who are, like yourself, deciding against this as a career path? It’s really about changing the narrative about policing, isn’t it?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. To my mind, what really has to be done is a widespread effort has to be undertaken to challenge the narrative that I think is at the root of the morale crisis, which is this idea that policing as an institution is racist, that it is violent, that it is unjustifiably intrusive, that we live in this sort of surveillance police state. These are the narratives that color how policing is talked about in institutions like the legacy media, places like the New York Times and the Washington Post. It colors how these issues are presented in academic institutions and university classrooms.

What has kind of characterized my work over the last decade or so has been pushing back on this narrative and tackling the accusations that are undergirding the relatively successful effort to defang or at least file down the teeth of policing as an institution. This idea that we have a mass incarceration problem, that we have a police violence problem, and that because both minority members of our community are overrepresented among the incarcerated and those subject to police use of force, that the criminal justice system is racist. These are the ideas that are really at the root of the crisis that I described in the piece.

I don’t think that there’s an easy way back to what we saw in the policing and public safety space in the late eighties and 1990s, outside of taking these arguments head on and winning the debate. So what I propose is just a very, very stern, data-based pushback on exactly those claims, and it has to be relentless and it has to be widespread. But if that doesn’t happen, I think that the activists are going to continue to win. Despite the crime increases that we’ve seen in the last few years, we have also seen that the activists are not going to stop.

In the city of Chicago just recently, the outgoing lame duck state’s attorney there, Kim Foxx, who ran for that office on a platform of decarceration and depolicing, just announced that she’s no longer going to pursue even felony-level charges if those charges are the byproduct of low-level traffic stops, which she calls pretextual stops, stops which are, according to the Supreme Court, 100 percent constitutional. And this is despite the fact that she is overseeing the prosecutor’s office in one of the most dangerous cities in America. So it’s very clear to me that they’re not going to stop. So that means that we have a very, very large task ahead of us, and that is to win this debate to make policing a noble institution again.

Brian Anderson: A final question, Ralph, we’re in a presidential year. A lot of these issues obviously involve local politics and local policy, but I wonder how might crime and policing play a role in this year’s presidential election?

Rafael Mangual: Well, the one thing that I think voters understand, especially from the last four years, is that there is a pretty stark partisan divide with respect to the issue of policing and criminal justice and public safety. When you think about the more misguided policies that have been adopted in cities and states throughout the country, things like bail reform that essentially guarantees that even violent offenders find their way back out onto the street following an arrest, sentencing reforms that either divert people from incarceration entirely or significantly shorten the amount of time that they spend behind bars, when you look at these policies like progressive prosecution and deep policing initiatives and other restrictions on police power, it’s all coming from the political left. You don’t see very many Republicans pushing this stuff anymore, certainly not for a very long time. That, I think, does give voters a sense that there is a clear choice when it comes to this issue.

Now the question is whether this particular issue, which poll after poll shows Americans entrust the Republicans much more on in terms of whether or not they’ll handle these issues well, the question’s going to be is whether the issue of public safety is going to remain a driver of the ultimate decision, right? How important is that issue going to be relative to other issues that are going to enjoy some in the election cycle? Things like the war in Gaza and the .U.S’s role as a supporter of Israel, the economy, most certainly, the Supreme Court, the prosecution of former President Donald Trump. All of these things I think are going to weigh very, very heavily on people’s decisions to vote. But particularly for urban residents living in jurisdictions that have seen public safety levels deteriorate, I suspect that to the extent that that’s going to be the most important factor to them, that they are very, very likely to reconsider supporting a Democratic politician for whatever the office is that’s in question.

Brian Anderson: Very interesting. Don’t forget to check out Ralf’s work on the City Journal website. That’s www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description, and you can find him on X @Rafa_Mangual. You can also find City Journal on X @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As usual, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Ralf Mangual, always great to talk with you, and thanks for the illuminating walkthrough of your recent essay in City Journal, “Can We Get Back to Tougher Policing?” Thanks again.

Rafael Mangual: Thank you.

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