Police State/Civil Liberties

The Overlooked Factors in Police Abuse Cases

By Matt Taibbi

Cops take most of the blame, often deservedly, but the single-minded media furor of the last year has let other bad actors off the hook.

Seven years ago this past weekend, on July 17, 2014, a Staten Island man named Eric Garner was killed by police in a gruesome scene that went viral and helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement. Press reports usually say Garner was stopped on suspicion of selling cigarettes by plainclothes officers who then choked him to death, but the story I wrote about in I Can’t Breathe was both stupider and more tragic than that. Garner’s death was a confluence of a hundred terrible developments, but above all a grotesque governance failure. It was a classic example of how even the most harmless-sounding ideas can, in the hands of the wrong people, become deadly policy.

Garner’s death was accelerated by policing strategies based on the “Broken Windows” theory. Often attributed to famed Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo, the theory’s origins really go back to 1963, when criminologist George Kelling took a job running a home for troubled youth in Lino Lakes, Minnesota. Before Kelling’s arrival, Freud-inspired clinicians at the 64-bed facility stressed observing rather than correcting the emotionally disturbed minors in their care. If a resident broke a light bulb, for instance, they would leave broken glass on the floor and just keep taking notes.

Kelling, a former parole officer, ordered staff to clean up the glass. After this and some other changes, violent incidents in the facility declined. He made the same observation most parents understand implicitly, that turning visual noise down and setting clear boundaries lowers anxiety and discourages acting out.


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