Who Pays for Broken Windows?


If you live in a large American city, you’ve probably experienced the second-hand effects of misdemeanor policing. Originally championed by New York City officials in the early 1990s as Broken Windows policing, this strategy quickly spread to police departments across the country. While the “broken windows” label has fallen out of fashion, aggressive misdemeanor policing is at the core of many policing strategies—preventive patrol, hot spots policing, and zero-tolerance policing, just to name a few—that are still widely used today.

Misdemeanor policing is all about creating order: small indications of disorder such as broken windows and graffiti supposedly lead to the breakdown of social norms, which in turn facilitate more serious crimes. Therefore, to eliminate serious crimes, cities must aggressively police and prosecute smaller offenses that could lead to disorder [1].

Social scientists have hotly debated the efficacy of this strategy for decades. Malcolm Gladwell gives it a starry-eyed review in The Tipping Point, and some criminologists point to its application under certain circumstances. But critics argue that by punishing typically law-abiding citizens with large fines and hours in processing for minor infractions, misdemeanor policing ultimately destabilizes communities, aggravating rather than deterring crime [2].

So does misdemeanor policing prevent crime or create it? In this blog post, I offer a third view that links broken windows policing with the neighborhood revitalization projects that are changing American cities today. In particular, I’ll examine the case of a misdemeanor policing operation in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio to untangle the relationship between crime, policing, and revitalization/gentrification.


Operation Vortex: a crackdown in OTR

Operation Vortex was a “highly visible proactive unit that has a zero tolerance approach to street crimes, drug trafficking, and quality of life issues” that operated in Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood starting in early 2006 [3]. Over-The-Rhine (abbreviated OTR), a neighborhood just north of Cincinnati’s central business district, had a troubled history with the police: in 2001, a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in Over-The-Rhine, setting off citywide riots and prompting investigations from the ACLU and the US Department of Justice. By 2006, Over-The-Rhine had one of the highest violent crime rates in Cincinnati.

Over-The-Rhine and its position within central Cincinnati
Over-The-Rhine is located in central Cincinnati, directly north of downtown

The Cincinnati Police Department decided that the best way to reduce serious crime in Over-The-Rhine was to crack down on any and all lawlessness in the neighborhood. During the summer of 2006 alone, members of Operation Vortex arrested over 2,600 residents in Over-the-Rhine for crimes as minor as jaywalking.

This zero-tolerance strategy provoked outrage in the community and raised doubts even within the CPD leadership. As one high-ranking officer told The New Yorker:

“You say, ‘O.K., we’re going to arrest everyone who jaywalks.’ So who do you arrest? Someone’s grandmother, or the milkman, or some guy who has just worked a sixteen-hour day and is trying to get home as fast as he can. It’s bullshit. Even in high-crime neighborhoods, there are a lot of honest people living there.”

Still, the numbers showed that crime was on a downward trend in Over-The-Rhine, and Operation Vortex was helping. Long-term data found that from 2004 to 2014, violent crime in Over-The-Rhine had fallen by 72 percent. Local media outlets applauded police success at removing the “criminal marketplace” from Over-The-Rhine, forcing gangs and career criminals out of the city center. As Politico commented about Cincinnati’s efforts to change the neighborhood, “the only thing unreal about it […] are the results.”

If crime fell in Over-The-Rhine after a misdemeanor policing campaign, does this disprove the critics who say that it exacerbates crime? Did Operation Vortex really save the neighborhood by spending a summer rounding up graffiti artists and jaywalkers? To answer that question, we need to investigate OTR’s transformation within the greater context of Cincinnati.


Cincinnati: Development and Displacement

Operation Vortex didn’t happen in a vacuum: while the crackdown was in full swing, a major push for development in OTR was just getting off the ground. In 2002, Cincinnati’s city government eliminated their entire urban planning department—in its place, the mayor helped to form the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), an independent nonprofit group with the sole mission of “strategically revitalizing Cincinnati’s downtown urban core,” including Over-The-Rhine. By all accounts, 3CDC has played a central role in OTR’s transformation over the past decade.

While residents may not have recognized it in 2006, Over-The-Rhine was on the brink of a massive push for reinvestment. Since 2005, 3CDC had been collecting vacant and dilapidated properties in Over-The-Rhine in preparation for redevelopment; in early 2007, they announced a housing and commercial redevelopment project in the south of OTR dubbed the Gateway Quarter. Less than two years after ground was first broken on the project, the Gateway Quarter had expanded to include 200 redeveloped condominiums and 30 new storefronts, with more than $164 million in redevelopment money still on the way [4]. Today, Over-The-Rhine neighborhood is hailed as a bright spot in downtown Cincinnati: old buildings are being renovated, craft breweries are reviving the neighborhood’s brewing tradition, and people are moving in. Streets once renowned for having “no jobs, no money, and little hope” are now awash in all three.

OTR's redevelopment has sparked new interest in local businesses and farmer's markets
OTR’s redevelopment has sparked new interest in local businesses and farmer’s markets. This photo from 2011 shows a bustling Saturday at Findlay Market in central OTR. Photo by 5chw4r7z (CC-by-SA)

While OTR’s campaign was particularly successful, it wasn’t the only of its kind—in fact, downtown revitalization is now considered an economic imperative for most city governments. There’s a reason that this brand of inner-city revivalism is happening now: after profound structural changes to the United States economy in the 1970s and 1980s, corporate wealth has become increasingly mobile, forcing cities around the world to compete for investment and jobs. The type of inner-city revitalization seen in OTR gives cities a leg up over their competitors, since it attracts the middle-class creatives and small business owners who are purported to drive economic growth.

Inner-city revitalization can take many forms, but we see some of its classic calling cards in OTR: these include classifying the neighborhood as a historic district; private-public planning commissions that target reinvestment; and favorable zoning agreements and home improvement loans that allow new arrivals to fix up old housing.

Critics of revitalization call it by another name: gentrification. Gentrification and reinvestment are two terms for the same process—while terms like reinvestment and revitalization emphasize economic growth, dynamism, and new arrivals, gentrification emphasizes the displacement of a neighborhood’s previous residents. When wealth suddenly flows into a neighborhood, higher property taxes and soaring rent can price the previous residents out of their homes. There’s an emotional aspect to this as well: if local shops change to cater to the wealthier residents, older inhabitants can feel alienated by a new atmosphere that wasn’t designed to include them. Sometimes, it can seem as if city policies are deliberately designed to drive old residents out of gentrifying neighborhoods. When a city bulldozes old buildings to eliminate “blight,” it might be destroying someone’s home; if it kicks off a campaign to “take back” a neighborhood, that campaign often entails pushing undesirables out of public view [5].

Even as Over-The-Rhine has attracted new residents and businesses, the neighborhood seems to have become less accommodating towards some of its longtime residents. In a neighborhood that used to be a haven for newly-arrived immigrants thanks to its cheap housing, some property values are now approaching $1 million. New businesses that moved in to cater to the needs of wealthier residents have little to offer those who can’t afford their services, and locals say that there is very little mixing between the rich and poor members of OTR. According to a local social worker, the city of Cincinnati is “eliminating a whole segment of the population by economic means.”

Data backs up the claims that Over-the-Rhine is in the process of gentrifying. The graph below, which uses data from the US Census Bureau, shows the distribution of household incomes in the neighborhood, from 2000 (blue) and 2013 (orange). Notice how the proportion of households making less than $10,000 per year plummets over those 13 years, while the proportion of households making over $100,000 nearly triples:

Income distribution for households in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati
Income distribution for households in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, in 2000 (blue) and 2013 (orange)

Since the census does not release data for individual households, it’s impossible to tell exactly what changed in Over-The-Rhine between 2000 and 2013. Did people move out, or did the income of each individual household just skyrocket over that time? Data from the entire city of Cincinnati helps to clarify what happened: in the city as a whole, the proportion of households making less than $10,000 per year stays approximately the same.

Income distribution for households in Cincinnati
Income distribution for households in Cincinnati, in 2000 (blue) and 2013 (orange).

It’s possible that some individual OTR residents got much wealthier over this period, while other Cincinnati households got poorer; however, it is far more likely that this data shows a migration of very poor households away from the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood.

Here’s another way to look at this migration: the following map shows how the median income within each block group changed between 2000 and 2013.

Change in median income within central Cincinnati, 1999 to 2014. The map is broken up by block groups, the smallest areas that the US Census publishes economic data for.
Change in median income within central Cincinnati, 1999 to 2014. The map is broken up by block groups, the smallest areas for which the US Census publishes economic data.

This map shows how Cincinnati’s downtown and riverfront have transformed over the past decade and a half: the entire downtown has seen an influx of wealth, stretching into the southern portion of Over-The-Rhine. Farther away from the city center, the economic changes grow more complex, as scattered and sometimes adjacent areas have grown significantly richer and poorer.

Among the critics of revitalization, there has been a long-standing consensus that both the justifications and effects of gentrification can have strong racial overtones. While recent research has complicated that picture and called for a greater understanding of “diverse gentrification,” Cincinnati’s past and current racial tensions suggest that racial displacement might also be a part of the revitalization process in OTR. The following map shows how settlement patterns changed for white residents of Cincinnati between 2000 and 2010:

Population change for white residents in central Cincinnati
Population change from 2000 to 2010 for white residents in Central Cincinnati

Compare that with the following map, which shows how settlement patterns changed for nonwhite residents of Cincinnati between 2000 and 2010:

Population change for nonwhite residents in central Cincinnati
Population change from 2000 to 2010 for nonwhite residents in central Cincinnati

While both whites and nonwhites have moved into Downtown Cincinnati and southern OTR, and out of neighborhoods to the near East (including Lower Price Hill, Camp Washington, and North Fairmont), the similarities stop there. Speaking generally, whites tend to have moved away from outer-ring neighborhoods and into neighborhoods surrounding the city center, including Walnut Hills, West End, Cuf, and Mount Adams. Meanwhile, movement among people of color has tended to be away from these central districts and into more peripheral neighborhoods such as Hyde Park, Norwood (actually another city), East Price Hill, and Westwood.

Gentrification is too complex, varied, and subjective to describe using a single indicator, especially given the imprecise data at my disposal [6]. However, I think it’s useful to condense the information that I’ve shared so far into one map before moving forward.

Any region with an increasing median income, increasing white population, and decreasing nonwhite population is likely experiencing some form of class- or race-based population displacement—areas that meet these criteria are marked in brown on the map below. A second metric describes areas where people displaced by gentrification have probably moved to: these areas have a decreasing median income, a decreasing white population, and an increasing nonwhite population. They are marked in turquoise on the map below:

Metrics for gentrification and displacement in central Cincinnati
Combined metrics for probable gentrification (in brown) and influx of displaced individuals (in turquoise)

Again, while no single indicator can adequately capture gentrification, these combined metrics provide some insight into the long-term movements of people and wealth across Cincinnati.


The Effects of Misdemeanor Policing and Population Change

Let’s get back to the original critiques of misdemeanor policing levied at the beginning of this article. Sociologist Babe Howell suggests that this policing style is ineffective, among other reasons, because it ties up police resources that could be used elsewhere in the city. Because filing a single misdemeanor can require hours of paperwork, misdemeanor policing is a far more resource-intensive than other urban policing strategies [2]. As a result, any police department that engages in misdemeanor policing must focus their attention on a few neighborhoods at the expense of other areas; the strategy is simply untenable for an entire city.

Officers in the Cincinnati Police Department had low expectations that Operation Vortex would catch career criminals. As one commander put it, “the real bad guys—they know a sweep is on, so they just stay inside until things cool off.” But what if the bad guys decided to move elsewhere? Even before the end of the summer of 2006, residents from elsewhere in Cincinnati began to complain that crime was being pushed out into their own neighborhoods. Even Cincinnati’s police commanders began to grow concerned that the most serious crimes were simply moving out into other neighborhoods such as Avondale and the West End. Just as Operation Vortex was reducing street crime in OTR, Cincinnati as a whole experienced a record-high 89 murders in 2006.

Two geographers from the University of Cincinnati decided to test whether or not these complaints were valid for the entire city [7]. They used a metric called the Spatial Displacement Quotient to determine whether Operation Vortex’s 2006 campaign in OTR had displaced crime into nearby neighborhoods, or if the benefits of reduced crime in OTR translated into lower crime nearby. Their results were surprising: in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding OTR (less than 2 miles away), crime went down immediately following the 2006 sweep; but in neighborhoods further away (2-4 miles away), crime increased during that same period. In other words, Operation Vortex seems to have benefited OTR and the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it, while pushing crime out into farther-flung parts of Cincinnati. The map below shows the zones that were compared in the study: crime went down from 2005 to 2006 within the green area, but went up within the red area.

Areas where crime increased and decreased as a result of Operation Vortex
Neighborhoods less than 2 miles away from Over-The-Rhine (green area) experienced a reduction in crime after Operation Vortex. Neighborhoods 2 to 4 miles from Over-The-Rhine (red area) experienced an increase in crime after Operation Vortex.

Given that Operation Vortex simply displaced crime away from Cincinnati’s downtown rather than reducing it overall, we could consider the whole project a failure. After all, isn’t the goal of any policing operation to make the city safer? But there’s more to this story. Compare the short-term effects of Operation Vortex (indicated by the green and red dotted lines) with our long-term gentrification indicator from above:

Comparing gentrification indicators with changes in crime
Combined metrics showing areas that are likely experiencing gentrification (in brown) or an influx of displaced individuals (in turquoise), compared to the short-term changes in crime after Operation Vortex

There’s a striking overlap between areas that benefited from Operation Vortex and regions that appear to have gentrified over the past decade. Note that if we removed the racial criteria for gentrification and considered only changes in median income, then over half of the area less than two miles from OTR would qualify as gentrified. Conversely, almost all of the areas that have likely received displaced people are located within the two- to four-mile ring, where crime increased as a result of Operation Vortex.

It’s no coincidence that short-term changes in crime are such a strong indicator of long-term movement around the city. Wealthy people tend to move to new areas only if they feel they are safe, and neighborhood revitalization projects often include a deliberate crime-reduction component. Conversely, when housing costs in a neighborhood start to rise, poorer families who have been priced out of their neighborhoods might only be able to relocate to areas where crime has depressed property values. 3CDC is well aware of this dynamic:

At a Memorial Hall fund-raiser this past spring, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), the agency at the center of everything going on in OTR, reminded her well-heeled audience how afraid they used to be to come downtown, and how development, and 3CDC, had soothed their fears.

Again, if we measure Operation Vortex’s 2006 sweep by whether or not it reduced crime in Cincinnati as a whole, then it was a failure. But Operation Vortex changed the distribution of serious crime around the city, pushing it out of Over-The-Rhine right before 3CDC began its massive development campaign. In this context, Operation Vortex successfully laid the groundwork for one of Cincinnati’s most famous and successful revitalization projects. Additionally, while there’s no documentation as to how Operation Vortex influenced homeless and impoverished residents of OTR, it’s feasible that the new zero-tolerance policing campaign influenced some of them to move elsewhere, eliminating another barrier to redevelopment.


The Takeaway

Here’s what’s critical to understand about the latest wave of urban revitalization campaigns, including the one in OTR: in the era of the Creative Economy and mobile capital, cities often focus their resources on developing a few core neighborhoods into vibrant districts. After all, it’s easier to tackle problems on a smaller scale, and a city only needs to advertise its best neighborhoods to attract talented workers and corporate investment. Misdemeanor policing fits nicely into these small-scale revitalization projects because it pushes crime out and away from the target neighborhood. What misdemeanor policing didn’t do, in the case of Over-The-Rhine, was reduce serious crime in the city as a whole.

This is only a preliminary investigation, and given the limitations of the Census data that I draw from [6], I can’t conclusively prove the relationship between crime and gentrification discussed above. A more rigorous follow-up study might use individual household data, crime reports, and interviews to investigate how Operation Vortex influenced the movements of both crime and people from 2006 until the present. This research could help to prove or disprove the claim that redevelopment in Over-The-Rhine didn’t actually displace anyone and inform other revitalization projects in Cincinnati.

I didn’t write this article to criticize the current Cincinnati Police Department, which seems to have dramatically improved its crime reduction strategies since 2006; nor is this article an indictment of the individual members of Operation Vortex, since these types of strategic decisions are typically made at the highest levels of municipal government. But I do hope that this post clarifies the ways that policing strategy can fit within larger city initiatives and goals. I also hope that it raises the question of whether neighborhood-based redevelopment projects can truly benefit all of a city’s residents, or if they simply shift the twin burdens of crime and poverty from one part of a city to another.


[1] Wilson, J., & Kelling, G. (1982). Broken Windows. Atlantic Monthly, 249(3), 29. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465/

[2] Howell, K. B. (2009). Broken Lives from Broken Windows: The Hidden Costs of Aggressive Order-Maintenance Policing. NYU Review of Law & Social Change, 33, 271–329. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1611269

[3] For more specifics about Operation Vortex and the Cincinnati Police Department, see the five annual reports created by the RAND Corporation from 2004 to 2008

[4] For a more complete timeline of 3CDC’s involvement in Over-The-Rhine, see the “Historic Milestones” section of their website

[5] When someone claims to be “taking back” a neighborhood as part of a redevelopment project, geographers call it revanchism.

[6] This data is unsuitable for a formal investigation into OTR’s population dynamics for several reasons. First, the spatial scale of the economic data (block groups containing 600-3,000 people) it’s impossible to make claims about the movements of individual people and households; I can only make educated inferences based on general trends in the data. Second, the temporal scale of the data (2000 to 2013 for the economic data, 2000 to 2010 for the racial data) is inappropriate for this study, as the effects of Operation Vortex in 2006 cannot be distinguished from preexisting trends. Because the economic and racial datasets cover two different time scales, they should not be combined into a single metric. Finally, income data for 2000 and 2013 does not take inflation into account, making the two datasets difficult to compare directly ($1 in 2000 is equivalent to approximately $1.35 in 2013). However, I believe that the Census data that I use is both precise and accurate enough to display the broad contours of the trends that I have mapped above.

[7] Hall, D., & Liu, L. (2009). Cops and robbers in Cincinnati: a spatial modeling approach for examining the effects of aggressive policing. Annals of GIS, 15(1), 61–71. http://doi.org/10.1080/19475680903271158

About the blog

This blog is pretty sparse for now, but I’m planning to start writing regularly about geography, coding, city policy, and my current projects soon. Stay tuned for more!