Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race and Disorder in New York City

Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School
Garth Davies


Patterns of "stop and frisk" activity by police across New York City neighborhoods reflect competing theories of aggressive policing. "Broken Windows" theory suggests that neighborhoods with greater concentrations of physical and social disorder should evidence higher stop and frisk activity, especially for "quality of life" crimes. However, while disorder theory informs quality of life policing strategies, observed patterns of stop and frisk activity suggest that neighborhood characteristics such as racial composition, poverty levels and the extent of social disorganization are stronger predictors of race- and crime-specific police stops than is the presence of "broken windows." Furthermore, stops of minority citizens more often failed to meet Terry standards of reasonable suspicion, suggesting the conflation of race with the strategic design of "order maintenance policing."

Our empirical evidence suggests that policing is not about disorderly places, nor about improving the quality of life, but about policing poor people in poor places. This strategy contradicts the policy rationale derived from Broken Windows theory, and deviates from its original emphasis on community conditions by instead focusing disproportionately on minority citizens. Racially disparate policing reinforces perceptions by citizens in minority neighborhoods that they are under non-particularized suspicion and are therefore targeted for aggressive stop and frisk policing. Such broad targeting raises concerns about the legitimacy of law, threatens to weaken citizen participation in the co-production of security, and undercuts the broader social norms goals of contemporary policing.