Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The “broken windows” theory of crime prevention hasn’t helped police engage with black communities. In Baton Rouge, broken porches won’t, either.
Gavin Long’s July 17 attack on six Baton Rouge police officers, which left three dead, has intensified an already volatile situation between black communities and law enforcement. At the crux of that shaky social contract is a question: Who has to pay for their actions, and who doesn’t? From the perspective of many African Americans, it appears that the law too often bends toward redress for injured or killed police officers, but less so for black people harmed or killed by police.
The morning of Long’s attack, The Advocate’s editorial board reminded readers that hard questions remained about the video-recorded killing of Alton Sterling on July 5 by two Baton Rouge police officers. If the early reports of Long’s motivations are true, then he attempted to answer those questions with a gun.
Baton Rouge resident Lisa Batiste knew one of the slain officers, Montrell Jackson, and was touched by a now-popular July 8 Facebook post in which he expressed fatigue from facing scorn for being both a police officer and for being black. She knew him as “a cool brother” who was “profound.” But just over a week ago, Batiste, who is African-American, was airing her own grievances with the Baton Rouge police department over the way they barged onto her property to arrest protesters. She says she doesn’t approve of Long’s actions, but that her critique of the Baton Rouge police stands.
“I think that what happened with the police [injured and killed by Long] is wrong, and that type of warfare is not going to produce any positive outcomes,” says Batiste. “I also think [police] accountability cannot appropriately be swept away. We would be irresponsible to do so.”
Batiste rents a single-family cottage in Beauregard Town, a historic district near downtown, home to families from a mix of economic classes but teetering toward the upper middle class. The cedar planks on her wraparound porch are still mangled from the July 10 clash between riot-geared police and protesters that unfolded there in response to Sterling’s killing. She’s still gathering information on how or whether the city might compensate her for the damages.
Perhaps there would be no damage to speak of had two police officers not approached Sterling on July 5 as he stood in front of the Triple S Food Mart selling CDs. But that moment ended tragically, in Batiste’s opinion, because of fear.
“From what I’ve seen, it appears to me that the officers were absolutely afraid, and I think that’s the ultimate reason why they shot [Sterling],” says Batiste. “I don’t think it was malice, but I do think it was fear based on the type of rhetoric that non-African-Americans hear about us—the proverbial fear of a black man.”
Batiste believes that Baton Rouge police officers are good people—even the ones who killed Sterling. But she feels that they need to become better servants and neighbors in black communities, and that there should be requirements in place in the department to make that happen.
The call for police to generally become better integrated into their communities—as guardians, not just enforcers—is espoused by a growing number of law-enforcement leaders. It’s also the kind of engagement that the slain officer Montrell Jackson encouraged.
National law-enforcement experts say that solutions to this problem are difficult to create. According to former New Orleans Police Chief Ronald Serpas, much of why that is comes down to funding.
“What we generally see, which is very clear, is that the funding required for training and for recruiting the best, brightest and bravest—when that starts to dry up, then yeah, you’ll start to see things falling apart,” says Serpas, who is also the chair of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
Batiste doesn’t have the answers for who should pay for better policing or how. She’s having a hard enough time figuring out who’s going to pay for her porch.
‘Broken-windows’ policing meets broken porches
Call it “broken-porch” policing, a system where police can trample on the rights and the property of citizens without fear of having to pay for either. This should not be confused with “broken windows” policing, which says that police should hold community members accountable for any sign of disorder, large or small, often in criminally punitive fashion. The theory centers on the idea that police can’t let a broken window, for example, go unaddressed in a community, because it signals that others can get away with more deviant behavior. It’s a controversial theory that the New York City Inspector General’s office recently found ineffective in reducing felony criminal activity.
But what should happen when it’s the police who are breaking windows? Or in Batiste’s case, porches?
A legal complaint filed on July 13 by the ACLU of Louisiana against the Baton Rouge Police Department attempts to answer that question. It was filed on behalf of a number of organizations—among them, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, the Louisiana chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Black Youth Project 100, and North Baton Rouge Matters. All of these groups have had lawyers and advocates on the ground during the recent protests in Baton Rouge, observing how the police have been treating demonstrators.
The complaint alleges, based on those observations, that Baton Rouge police have been violating protesters' right to free speech, as well as (as quoted from the complaint):
- Engaging with peaceful protestors in a militarized fashion, including full body gear, threatening the use of chemical agents, and keeping live automatic weapons trained on peaceful crowds;
- Giving contradictory and confusing ad hoc orders to protestors, then arresting individuals for noncompliance;
- Entering a private home and unlawfully searching and seizing guests without probable cause.
These allegations are corroborated not only by protesters and their advocates, but also by journalists who were arrested while covering the demonstrations. Breitbart.com reporter Lee Stranahan—who’s no friend of the Black Lives Matter movement—substantiated the ACLU complaint’s claims when he wrote about getting arrested while covering the protests:
And I gotta point out that at no point was anything ever explained to the protesters. At no point did anyone from leadership come out and talk to the protesters. … [A]nd the Baton Rouge police have been getting horrible orders. Stand down was an order. Show up in full force and don’t explain anything is an order, it’s a policy.
‘Ferguson all over again’
“From what I’ve seen and read about it, it sounds like Ferguson all over again,” says Michael J. Jenkins, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton and co-author of the book Police Leaders in the New Community Problem-Solving Era, referring to the Baton Rouge protests that took place before Gavin Long’s July 17 attack. “Some police officers don’t believe they have a responsibility to limit the amount of force used in situations like this, so they show up for those protests essentially prepared for violence.”
Jenkins is among the camp of urban-policing thinkers who believes that “broken windows” policing actually is helpful, despite the studies that say otherwise. He doesn’t believe support the kind of policing that focuses only on arrests and law enforcement, however. Instead, he says, police should be working hand in hand with the community on a regular, personal basis, so they can respond to quality-of-life problems and gain the community’s trust.
That approach could have changed a lot of things on the day Baton Rouge police killed Sterling. But the Officer Friendly version of “broken windows” is one that many African Americans probably wouldn’t recognize. In a July 13 article in The Atlantic, Serpas told Juleyka Lantigua-Williams that “broken windows” policing is a “mixed bag.”
“In one way, it makes perfect sense to people that if you see disorder, perhaps it’s going to be likely that more disorder will follow,” said Serpas in the article.
The question is whether that cuts both ways between police and communities. Why shouldn’t community members look at videos like the Sterling killing, or cops storming Batiste’s property, and see those as signals that more disorder from the police will follow?
Serpas tells CityLab that, beyond funding problems, police leaders are still working through how to weed bad cops out of departments. He refers to a Gallup poll showing that 20 percent of American workers are “actively disengaged.”
“That means out of 700,000 cops in America … there are about 140,000 people who are not there for the right reason, to be good employees and good cops.” Serpas says he personally has “fired hundreds and suspended thousands of officers,” but that punishing police officers under the current laws is too difficult.
“In many cities and states in this country, as a reflection of the 1920s and ‘30s and ‘40s, there are very strong and oftentimes archaic civil-service rules and collective-bargaining agreements that literally make punishing people very complex and very time-consuming,” he says. “Eventually, that starts to erode away at an officer’s concern that a disciplinary system is ever actually going to be problematic for them, and that goes on way too much in the country.”
In other words, some officers begin to lose the fear of having to account for their actions when they violate someone’s rights or run afoul of the law—a luxury virtually no other profession or person has.
Someone still has to pay
“A lot of this comes down to fear,” says Jenkins, echoing Lisa Batiste. “And police won’t say that explicitly, that they’re scared out of their minds and fearful for their own safety.“
In The New York Times, Darrel W. Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association said that “The average officer in America—who was tense anyway—their tension and vigilance is going to increase even more.”
Which is why Batiste believes that police officers need a “safe space” where they can admit those kinds of fears out loud. And perhaps that’s the kind of radical police transparency that African Americans would benefit from. After all, if police vigilance does increase as Stephens warns—and there are indications it already has—it’s historically been black people who are first in line to suffer the repercussions.
But “if fear is something they can’t overcome, then … let them patrol somewhere else. Or just don’t let them be on a police force, bottom line,” says Batiste.
Whether it’s black people’s lives, their rights, or their property that’s being trampled, someone still has to pay. Police should not be exempt from that contract. The families and loved ones of Gavin Long’s victims certainly deserve justice. However, if the issues that existed prior to Long’s attacks are left unresolved, then any window of opportunity for police to build trust with African Americans will likely remain broken. Who will pay for that?