Activist Groups Challenge Police Repression of Poor and Homeless

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

The “broken windows” theory of policing, introduced in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, is meant to focus on the importance of “fixing”—also known as policing, getting rid of, or cleaning out—“broken windows” as a way of preventing more serious crimes. Thus, for example, according to the theory, preventing relatively minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, or fare evasion, sends a signal that the area is one where crime is not tolerated, thus deterring more serious wrongdoing.

In September, at the 61st annual meetings of the International Downtown Association (IDA), held at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in San Francisco, Kelling spoke on a panel that addressed the controversial “broken windows” model of policing. As Tiny (Lisa Gray-Garcia) of the PoorNewsNetwork reports, outside the hotel, activists released a report claiming that, since 2012, over 2,500 children and youth under eighteen years of age have been abused, profiled, and threatened by policies inspired by Kelling and Wilson’s broken windows theory. During the same period, over 350 families have been separated because they were sleeping in their cars.

The International Downtown Association has been a focal point of anti-homeless policing. As Tiny reports, activists in the WeSearch Policy Group have experienced the violence of private policing through so-called “ambassador” programs in San Francisco and Berkeley. Businesses from New York to Berkeley have created new codes allowing them to hire private police to purposefully arrest, harass, and evict poor people. Tyray Taylor from Deecolonize Academy reported that, as a young black male, if he were to stand with other youth of color in his neighborhood he would be at risk of criminalization and arrest dues to policies inspired by broken windows theory. Many more children ranging from ages 12 to 14 have had similar experiences. At the protest, Bruce Allison, a disabled elder who has been houseless since 2013, reported that he had been profiled, harassed, incarcerated, and arrested “over 230 times.”

Instead of helping people to get housing, private police create even more stressed. When people—including especially the poor, those with disabilities, and the homeless—come to be seen by police and community members as “broken windows,” the theory legitimizes injustice.

Source: Tiny (Lisa Gray-Garcia), “Broken Windows Theory is Broken,” POOR Magazine, October 4, 2015, Republished in San Francisco Bay View, October 7, 2015,

Student Researcher: Giovanna Arguelles (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Napoleon Reyes (Sonoma State University)