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Commentary: When covering cops, media need to keep the windows open

Michael J. Jenkins is associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton and coauthor of "Police Leaders in the New Community Problem-Solving Era" (Carolina Academic Press, 2015)

Michael J. Jenkins

is associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton and coauthor of "Police Leaders in the New Community Problem-Solving Era" (Carolina Academic Press, 2015)

The past week's shootings of citizens and police will inevitably give rise to many opinions about how police should do their jobs. Some will suggest police revert back to a get-tough approach, while others will expect police to pull back from proactive policing. In light of this, we must reflect on the fact that good, everyday policing and honest, nuanced media coverage of police stories are vital for our society. The manner in which media covered a recent report on quality-of-life policing in the NYPD offers a case in point.

There has been talk in Philadelphia and other cities about abolishing "broken-windows" policing. And erroneous media reports that "nothing works" are fueling that discussion.

All this is reminiscent of 1975, when there was a famous study of prisoner rehabilitation programs. The report concluded that such efforts had no appreciable effect on recidivism. Commonly referred to as the "Nothing Works" study, the rousing and sensational media attention it received sparked 40 years of punitive policy and oppressive over-incarceration, the repercussions of which we are just beginning to remedy.

Media bias and a failure on the part of researchers to properly explain the nuances of the research resulted in a lost opportunity to improve the treatment of offenders and deliver superior justice. We were left with the reification of the "nothing works" mantra.

Similarly, the media's response to last month's report by the New York Police Department's inspector general on the relationship between quality-of-life enforcement and felony crime feels like déjà vu. Though the report clearly tells us we should refine one aspect of broken-windows policing, it is not and does not claim to be the entire story, as has been incorrectly reported.

The idea that police attention to lower-level offenses can make neighborhoods be and feel safer is as solid as when broken-windows creator George Kelling came up with the theory while observing foot patrol officers in the notoriously violent city of Newark, N.J., in the 1970s. The conclusions arrived at then have been empirically proven time and again in many cities - including one study in which literally fixing broken windows resulted in reductions in assaults, shootings, and nuisance crimes. Broken-windows policing is associated with reduced levels of fear and serious crime.

Philadelphia police have relied on tactics such as stop-question-and-frisk, zero-tolerance approaches, and quality-of-life summonses and arrests. Though these tactics can be supported through the original explication of the broken-windows theory and they should remain as an option in a police officer's toolbox, they are not the sole or preferred method for police to pay attention to disorderly conditions, especially in today's environment.

Many cities, for example, have instituted 3-1-1 lines for citizens to report physical disorder, which is oftentimes remedied by the police department. Police-led neighborhood beautification projects are another way police can tend to broken windows.

The inspector general report made clear what it was and was not reporting about the NYPD's quality-of-life enforcement and felony crime outcomes. It offered important context for understanding how this single police tactic was being used within the department, and cited the limitations of the study. The report did not call for an end to broken-windows policing, but rather acknowledged that low-level summonses still address community concerns. Its authors called for better data on its effectiveness, and suggested, in fact, that the NYPD did not enforce quality-of-life enforcement disproportionately against black and Hispanic individuals.

As in other major cities, Philadelphia residents will continue to call on our guardians of society to help them maintain order in their streets, and police will persist in answering those calls. In the 21st century, and with the scrutiny police have received in recent years, police must fix broken windows with an eye toward problem-solving and precision.

Demographics, the nature of disorderly behaviors, and the environment in which police respond to such incidents have changed. That is one of the reasons why the New York City Council moved low-level infractions like public urination out of the criminal process into the civil process. Philadelphia might consider making a similar amendment, as this still honors the basic tenet of broken-windows policing - the legal authority for police to intervene in behaviors that signal what Northwestern's Wes Skogan refers to as the spiral of decay.

Police-initiated contacts on the basis of lower-level offenses cannot be done in a carpet-bombing fashion. Sophisticated data collection, analysis, and dissemination technologies will allow police to more finely apply various broken-windows tactics. Police should, at all times, through constant contact with citizens and community groups, be cognizant of the different needs, resources, and definitions of disorderly behavior in various neighborhoods.

But the media coverage of the NYPD report boiled it down to "nothing works in broken-windows policing," and urban residents and police departments are worse off because of it. My hope is such sentiment doesn't spill over into Philadelphia.

If we truly wish to make a more just system and reduce crime, we need the media to do better. Evidence, research, and context should be carefully reported.