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How the broken windows theory led to police misconduct

The broken windows theory essentially says that crime is more likely in an area that has been neglected. For instance, if the windows have been smashed out of a number of homes in a neighborhood, people in the area then feel emboldened to commit more serious crimes than pure vandalism.

This criminal theory has shaped the way police work is done, and it extends beyond windows. It applies to many minor crimes, like selling individual cigarettes or not paying transit fares or even breaking minor drug laws.

After the introduction of this theory, some police departments decided to aggressively go after these minor crimes. They hoped they could "clean up" various areas, showing that they weren't neglected, and then keep people from committing major crimes. The idea was just to introduce that appearance of order and structure, prompting people to follow suit.

The problem is that this caused a serious spike in complaints against police for misconduct. Many were so aggressive in trying to prevent minor crimes that they stopped people who had done nothing wrong. If a person looked suspicious for any reason -- something that could be subject to police bias -- officers would use it as an excuse to stop them. Naturally, this could be problematic since people have a right to avoid illegal searches and seizures, granted by the Fourth Amendment.

Were you arrested by officers who were so set on finding criminals that they made arbitrary arrests and violated your rights? Did they take the broken windows doctrine too far? If so, it's important for you to know what legal options you have.

Source: NPR, "How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong," Shankar Vedantam, accessed Feb. 15, 2018

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