Reproducing Disorder: The Effects of Broken Windows Policing on Homeless People with Mental Illness in San Francisco.

AuthorSparks, Tony


In recent decades, cities have increasingly turned to law enforcement for the spatial management of the visibly poor. Commonly referred to as order-maintenance policing, this approach aims to remove undesirable or "disorderly" subjects from urban public space. Often understood as part of a broader punitive turn'in urban governance, recent scholarship suggests that a purely punitive lens obscures how police may use the tactics of order maintenance to coerce the disordered and disorderly into rehabilitative programs. Using San Francisco as a case study, this article examines the impact of order-maintenance practices on the lives of unhoused people with mental illness and illustrates how these policing tactics reproduce the disorderly bodies they aim to remove.


IN JUNE OF 2016, 17 SAN FRANCISCO MEDIA OUTLETS JOINED FORCES for a one-day media blitz on the topic of homelessness dubbed the San Francisco Homeless Project. The event, which one reporter called "an exasperated yet undefined attempt to spur the city into action" sought to redress what local media perceived as public inattention to homelessness in the city (Fuller 2016a). Reporters were not alone in their exasperation. Recent polls show homelessness to be the number one concern for residents, and in May of that year, city supervisors responded by declaring an official shelter crisis (Green 2016, Knight 2016). Upon passage of the declaration, sponsoring Supervisor David Campos announced to an assembled crowd, "I want you to know that I have heard you ... the issue of homelessness here in San Francisco has reached a crisis level" (Morse 2016).

Responding to this crisis, some anxious residents called for increased policing and a more punitive response to homelessness (Alexander 2016, Fuller 2016b).The resulting Proposition Q that was introduced,once passed, amended the police code to increase penalties for sleeping outside in public space (City of San Francisco 2016). This is not the first time San Francisco turned to the criminal code to respond to homelessness. The Matrix program in the 1990s instructed police to arrest and incarcerate the city's unhoused residents for perceived incivilities such as public drinking and sleeping. Although such punitive approaches have, since the early 2000s, been widely criticized for their lack of compassion, they continue to remain popular with many San Francisco residents and politicians alike (Gowan 2010, Murphy 2009).

San Francisco is not unique in grappling with the role of law enforcement in dealing with homelessness. In 1993, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani popularized Wilson and Kelling's now ubiquitous broken windows theory as part of his zero-tolerance policy toward low-level street and nuisance crimes. The basic premise of the broken windows theory suggests that small amounts of urban disorder, if left unchecked, will lead to greater disorder and crime. Broken windows policing efforts focus on the removal of sources of disorder, including people (Wilson & Kelling 1982). Despite widespread criticism of this theory as both empirically false and unfairly punitive (Eck & Maguire 2000, Harcourt 2009), broken windows policing, also referred to as order-maintenance or quality-of-life policing, has been widely embraced by police departments across the country (Herbert 2001, Vitale 2008).

Order-maintenance policing, however, may be actually reproducing the disorder it purports to reduce. In his work on broken windows policing, Bernard Harcourt (2008, 18) draws attention to how normative definitions of order and the policing of its boundaries shape ideas of urban disorder and "the way we perceive and judge the people who are out of order, disheveled, or different." I build upon this work by showing how the actions of police actively push people outside normative boundaries and define them as disorderly bodies. Through an examination of the experiences of the unhoused, this article argues that order-maintenance policing does little to remove disorder and instead fosters it. In the case of those struggling with both housing and mental health issues, practices of order-maintenance policing result in an ongoing process of displacement and destabilization brought about by repeated banishment, citation, and arrest. This process exacerbates difficulties in accessing shelter, health services, and support that people rely upon for their stability and well-being. In doing so, order-maintenance policing practices ultimately reproduce the very signifiers of disorder that they aim to abate.

Order-maintenance policing has long been a topic of critique among critical urban scholars. To date, however, scholars have paid little attention to the ways order-maintenance policing reproduces its object. Historically, critics of broken windows have focused on its outgrowth as a function of neoliberal governance. A large portion of this work has called particular attention to the ways in which order-maintenance or broken windows policing has legitimated and abetted punitive and revanchist urban policies that banish the visibly poor and homeless from urban public space in the name of marketized revitalization (Beckett & Herbert 2009, Mitchell2003, Smith 1996, Wacquant 2009).

Recently, a growing body of scholarship has suggested that, although the spatial policing of homelessness is undeniable, attending only to the punitive justification for order-maintenance policing obscures "the increasingly varied and complex geographies of urban poverty and its corresponding social control" (Stuart 2014, 1910; DeVerteuil et al. 2009). These works emphasize that homeless bodies are not just expelled from urban spaces but also managed within them. This managerial approach, DeVerteuil (2006) argues, makes possible a more ambivalent understanding of the complex relation between homelessness, disorder, and police practice. Police can, and often do, use order-maintenance enforcement as a way to connect street-dwelling individuals with mental health or substance abuse services (Johnsen & Fitzpatrick 2010, Stuart 2014).These practices of coercive care, Johnsen and Fitzpatrick contend (2010,1705), are not entirely punitive, but "underpinned to at least some degree by a desire to safeguard the welfare of those involved in street culture."

The success of such "compassionate" approaches, others point out, is both geographically uneven and dependent upon the availability of necessary services (Lyon-Callo 2008, Murphy 2009). In the absence of services, Robinson (2016,1) notes that "most homeless residents report their lives have become more challenging, more stressful, and less safe following expansion of quality of life policing." Further, as Herring (2014, 305) illustrates in his analyses of homeless encampments, both the compassionate and punitive rationales for order-maintenance policing are "two sides of the same coin of tactics of social control aimed at managing populations and the regulation of spaces." Both are strategies of managerial governance that, although useful for underscoring the complexities of police approaches, rely upon tactics of forced mobility and displacement (Alatorre et al. 2018, Speer 2018).

Further, both approaches position police as responding to a preexisting problem, with little understanding of how the police are active agents in the construction of social behaviors deemed threatening and disorderly. Police, rather than passive responders to social problems, are instead caught within a broader web of cause and effect wherein their own actions often produce consequences that exacerbate the very conditions that justify police deployment in the first place. Police, thus, are not just responding to disorder, or even managing disorder with coercive care, but they are also active producers of the very disorder that justifies their own response.

This article draws from and extends work on the consequences of order-maintenance policing by foregrounding its effects and implications for unhoused people with mental illness. Using San Francisco as a case study, I draw upon government documents, media reports, and survey and interview data collected by the San Francisco Coalition of Homelessness to illustrate the effects of order-maintenance policing on unhoused people with mental illness. I show how displacement caused by order-maintenance policing, combined with a chronic deficit of shelter and services, deprives people with mental illness of the spaces and resources they require to lead safe, stable lives. From within these geographies of deprivation and displacement emerges the dirty, destabilized, disheveled individual that beckons public outcry and police intervention. In this way, I argue, the tactics of order-maintenance policing not only fail to reduce but actively reproduce the very disorderly bodies they aim to remove.

This argument is grounded in the premise that the policing of homeless people in the context of order-maintenance policing is not primarily concerned with the housing status of individuals. Rather, it is the relational aesthetic of the homeless body--disheveled, behaving oddly, performing normatively private actions in public space--that renders these bodies as disorderly others in need of state sanction, removal, or quarantine (Amster 2003, Gerrard & Ferrugia 2015). Conversely, the aesthetic otherness posed by homeless bodies is not the simple or transparent result of housing or mental health status. Instead, the characteristic visual signifiers of homelessness emanate from a forced geography of exclusion and dispossession that deprives those without housing access of the care, services, and other accoutrements of social reproduction that enable the normatively orderly body (Wright 1997). In what follows, I illustrate how the visible signifiers of homeless disorder that justify police intervention are reproduced and exacerbated by order-maintenance policing in the context of inadequate...

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