A young activist named Diego Ibáñez, a native of Bolivia, is accused of spraying New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton with fake blood at a Times Square rally on Nov. 24. Protesters were angry not just about the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island in New York.
Images of the action drew attention to the export of violent police practices from New York to Latin America by consulting firms that employ Bratton and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Through their alliance with criminologist George Kelling of the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, Bratton and Giuliani have been preaching the broken-windows policing gospel to mayors and police departments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.
The broken-windows or zero-tolerance theory argues that serious crime is best prevented when smaller quality-of-life crimes are not tolerated. When, for example, graffiti and petty crime are permitted in urban spaces, the theory holds, criminals are emboldened to commit more serious crimes.
But in reality broken-windows policing, which does nothing to address the causes of crime, such as systemic poverty, is primarily designed to allow promising downtown spaces to gentrify for economic development and turns peripheral areas, where poverty is concentrated, into mini police states where all residents are potential suspects.
Bratton — Giuliani’s police commissioner in the early 1990s — helped implement an early version of the broken-windows theory at a time when the city was beginning its gentrification project, one that sent real estate prices soaring. Bratton and Giuliani had a famous falling out after Giuliani unceremoniously dismissed him from his post in 1996, and they have quietly become two important competing consultants for police forces in Latin America and the rest of the world.
After the security fears stoked by the Sept. 11 attacks, Giuliani Partners and the Bratton Group began pushing the New York model of broken-windows policing on several Latin American cities — most recently in Rio de Janeiro, where Giuliani has been awarded a long-term contract before the 2016 Olympics. The so-called shock of order campaign implemented in Rio has been called a copy of Giuliani’s cleanup of street vendors in New York during the 1990s. Yet the broken-windows model has a deceptive logic that purports to stop criminal activity, at the cost of criminalizing a substantial portion of a city’s ordinary citizens for minor offenses and subjecting them to disproportionate coercion and violence.
In the early 2000s, Mexico City spent $4.3 million of multibillionaire financier Carlos Slim’s money on a Giuliani Partners contract to implement broken windows. But Bratton criticized the Giuliani plan for its lack of cultural sensitivity, for instance, its ignorance in assessing the importance of its underground economy. Speaking in The El Paso (Texas) Times in 2011, Bratton blamed the Giuliani plan’s naiveté toward Mexico’s endemic police corruption and the complexity of its judicial system for its lack of effectiveness.
Yet Bratton has his own questionable track record. Take his tenure as police commissioner of the Los Angeles Police Department from 2002 to 2009. While Bratton has been widely credited with freeing it from a Department of Justice–imposed consent decree, it was achieved through using “arrest powers more aggressively for less serious crimes,” according to a report issued by Harvard’s Kennedy School. While the homicide and rape rates were lowered and high-profile corruption scandals, such as the misconduct of the Rampart division’s anti-gang unit, faded, the report concluded that African-Americans and, to a lesser extent Hispanics, were “subjects of the use of force out of proportion to their share of involuntary contacts with the LAPD.”
While Giuliani’s return to public office appears to be permanently on hold, Bratton’s shifting back and forth between being a police commissioner and a security consultant is reminiscent of the way K Street lobbyists move back and forth between high-powered law firms and government work.
Even now, New York’s streets are writhing with protest over the failure of a grand jury to indict a policeman in Bratton’s force for choking to death Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was suspected of selling untaxed loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street. In what was clearly a display of excessive force directed against a suspected quality of life crime, Bratton’s cherished broken-windows policy has resulted in death and a groundswell of mistrust and bitterness among marginalized blacks and Latinos. But Bratton is still eager to export such practices.
The spread of policing models such as broken windows and stop and frisk to Latin America can only exacerbate problems of inequality and police abuse in countries that have been even more challenged than the U.S. with violent crime. Unsurprisingly, governance that exists solely to create safer conditions for corporate development has the effect of worsening the conditions for the great majority of citizens.
Crime is an issue that should be taken seriously. But like leaders in the United States, Latin American policymakers must look to the broader problems of poverty and inequity that plague their countries rather than rely on discredited solutions imported from New York.