A man is seen detained in the back of a police van in west Baltimore on May 2. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The detention and subsequent death of Freddie Gray for the crime of Making Eye Contact While Black is, on one level, a case of bad and possibly criminal policing.

But it is also being seen as the apotheosis — and definitive repudiation — of a once high-flying theory of crime-fighting known as broken-windows or zero-tolerance policing.

“Everyone thought this was the greatest thing ever,” says D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. “The public loved it. Everyone loved it in the ’90s.”

Lanier, one of the country’s most successful big-city police chiefs, does not love it, at least not for Washington — and she made that clear long before the sad case of Freddie Gray. In a conversation last week, she explained where it goes wrong and what makes more sense.

The broken-windows theory, introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, was enthusiastically embraced by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, when they came to office in New York City in 1983. The idea was that minor violations could bring down a neighborhood and so encourage much more serious crime, like the murders and crack cocaine use that were rampant then. Bratton, who is back in New York today as police chief, went after graffiti artists, fare-gate jumpers, public drinkers, squeegee panhandlers and other misdemeanants — and the serious crime rate in New York City went down, too.

It’s hard to remember today that this apparent success was seen as a boon not only to the well-heeled of Manhattan but to New York’s poor residents, who were the primary victims both of broken-window squalor and of serious crime. There was less attention paid, at least at first, to the multitudes of poor men getting caught up in the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses. Instead, an obsessively statistical approach celebrated increasing numbers of arrests as proof of success.

Lanier, by contrast, is proud that the number of arrests in D.C. has declined — from 53,000 in 2007 to 42,000 last year — while crime rates also have gone down. Whatever the connection between zero tolerance and declining crime rates in the 1980s and 1990s — and scholars argue the question — Lanier says it certainly makes no sense for Washington today.

“What we forget is that the neighborhoods with the most crime are also the neighborhoods with the most victims and the most witnesses,” she says. If you storm in with zero tolerance, she said, “you turn all the victims and witnesses against you.”

One police officer might start a shift, she said, by pulling over a young man who ran a stop sign. If the man’s insurance had expired 30 days before, the officer would have to take him to the station. Another officer could run in a woman who stepped off her porch and onto the sidewalk with an open can of beer. By 7 p.m., when real crime was picking up, the best officers would be at the station — and residents would feel abandoned to the predators, the chief said.

None of this is simple because many residents do resent the minor violators. “In Ward 8, people ask me why their kids have to walk through lines of adults smoking marijuana,” Lanier said. “They say, ‘I bet you wouldn’t allow that in Ward 3.’ ”

But, she says, why should police officers with guns be enforcing nonviolent offenses like selling untaxed cigarettes or failing to pay child support? Why should police officers be on the front lines of every mental-health crisis? “I’ve sent all my officers for crisis intervention training — 40 hours worth,” she says. “But we’re not mental-health workers.”

In an article for the Police Chief magazine in 2012, Lanier said that “many large cities have had success in driving down violent crime through a combination of hot-spot and zero-tolerance policing.” But she said it hadn’t worked for the District, where she prefers to emphasize improving community relations, developing sources, using technology and sharing information more intelligently.

One option is to change laws in order to punish more offenses with citations rather than jail time and a permanent record. In the end, Lanier told me, different communities will decide for themselves how tolerant they want to be of disorderly conduct, open-container violations or similar transgressions. “Texas will probably be very different from Washington, D.C.,” she said.

She would rather deploy her officers to go after more serious crime. “Just sending the police to go and arrest as many people as possible — that’s not solving problems,” she said, “and it’s leading to violent confrontation.”

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