Thirty hours in central booking can really make you think. So discovered Blake Trettien, then president of the Johns Hopkins chapter of the ACLU, who says he was cursed at, handcuffed, and taken in—but never charged with a crime—after trying to get the name and badge number of a Baltimore City police officer who had arrested a friend of Trettien’s during a block party two years ago.
After that, and after reading in local newspapers about the frequency of warrant-less arrests and other police tactics related to so-called “zero tolerance” policing, Trettien’s interest was piqued. He first tackled the subject in a paper for a policy class taught by Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) director Sandra Newman last fall, then expanded his research and rewrote the paper for entry in a 2006 Abell Foundation urban policy contest this spring.
For his winning paper, Trettien, an economics and political science major who graduated from the Krieger School in May, has earned $5,000 and much attention for his take on “Order-Maintenance Policing in Baltimore: The Failure of ‘Broken Windows’ as a Police Strategy.”
The strategy has been championed by many, including Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley—who’s currently campaigning for governor touting a tough-on-crime stance that he says has led to the largest decline in violent crime of any big city in the country. Trettien, though, argues in his paper that the tactics, which include frequent stop-and-frisk searches and arrests for relatively minor offenses, cost more to individuals and communities than they provide in crime relief, and that they in fact undermine police officers’ effectiveness.
The policing strategy, credited with reducing crime in New York in the 1990s, grew out of the “broken windows” theory that disorder in a neighborhood leads to serious crime (i.e., that a broken window signals that a neighborhood tolerates crime).
But Trettien says there’s little evidence for a causal link between disorder and serious crime, and that Baltimore officials should “stop trying to emulate New York City and really reach out to community leaders to develop a strategy for what works in Baltimore.”
The Abell Award in Urban Policy is co-sponsored by the foundation and IPS and presented annually to the student who writes the most compelling paper on a pressing problem facing Baltimore and offers feasible strategies for addressing it. Since receiving the award, Trettien has given interviews to local reporters and accepted an invitation to write an op-ed piece for the Baltimore Sun.
“It’s an issue that’s important to me, so I’ve been trying to use all the research that I’ve done to see if I can maybe help inform some people who are in a position to be making policy like that,” he says.
No word on whether O’Malley has read Trettien’s research yet, but IPS says it will circulate the paper to relevant city policymakers and opinion leaders. Meanwhile, Trettien is taking a long saved-for trip around the world before he applies to law schools for next fall. He hopes to pursue a career in public interest law and public policy.
Trettien was the first undergraduate to win the Abell Award, and he did so during a year in which more than half of the submissions came from doctoral students, Newman says. The contest is open to full-time undergraduates and graduate students of nearly a dozen Baltimore area colleges and universities.