The “Broken Windows” theory of policing, applied in New York and other major American cities since the early ‘90s, has been credited in some quarters with reducing crime. Stopping, warning and even arresting perpetrators of low-impact crimes like vandalism and disorderly behavior, says the theory, contributes to a more cohesive neighborhood and a setting less likely to attract violent crime.
While criminologists continue to debate the impact of the practice, new research from two sociologists demonstrates that this sort of aggressive policing has a negative impact on the scholastic performance of African American young teenagers in the affected neighborhoods. The study by Joscha Legewie, assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, and Jeffrey Fagan, professor of law and epidemiology at Columbia University, found that for African American boys aged 13-15, the stress of even potential interaction with law enforcement lowered educational performance and added to inequality of economic outcomes.
In the April issue of the America Sociological Review, the two researchers credit broken-windows programs like New York’s Operation Impact – the policing program at the center of the study – with temporarily lowering crime rates in the impacted neighborhoods. Operation Impact labeled selected high-crime areas as impact zones and saturated these areas with additional police officers with the mission to engage in aggressive, broken-window policing. Of course, safer neighborhoods should generally contribute to increased academic performance for the children living there.
However, the policing program significantly reduced test scores for African American boys aged 13 to 15 years old even after controlling for many of the factors that could affect academic performance. This finding is based on data from the New York City Department of Education on public school students from the school years 2003/2004 to 2011/2012. The researchers compared changes in test scores before, during, and after Operation Impact for areas affected by the intervention to the same differences for areas designated as impact zones at a different point in time.
The findings show that Operation Impact lowered the educational performance of African American boys, which has implications for child development, economic mobility, and racial inequality. The effect size varies by race, gender, and age. It is substantial for African American boys age 13 to 15, and small and statistically insignificant for other groups.
“These findings provide evidence that the consequences of policing extend into key domains of social life,” said Legewie. “They highlight the hidden costs of aggressive policing programs and suggest that police reformers, policymakers, and researchers should consider these broader implications for assessing the effectiveness of policing.”
Additional analyses provide first evidence on the underlying mechanisms but are limited by the lack of data on student health. The researchers show that Operation Impact reduced crime, providing evidence for a positive channel through lower crime rates; at the same time they show that Operation Impact reduced school attendance, indicating that system avoidance by young African American teenagers during periods of intense police presence may lead to higher rates of absenteeism. Looking beyond the data to other well-researched interventions in education, the researchers believe that policing programs like Operation Impact can eliminate the positive effects of costly and positive education interventions, at least for older African American boys.
The findings advance understanding about the role of the criminal justice system for youth development and racial/ethnic inequality, Legewie and Fagan conclude. Although much work has been done on the effect of parental incarceration on children, this is the first study demonstrating a negative impact from surge policing on children themselves; the consequences of the criminal justice system are not confined to those incarcerated or arrested but have a much broader impact on the entire community.
Read the entire study, “Aggressive Policing and the Educational Performance of Minority Youth.”
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About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is the ASA's flagship journal.