The New York Times editorial board this week published two biting criticisms of the New York Police Department’s response to Mayor Bill de Blasio for his perceived public support of protesters the police hold responsible for the shooting death two weeks ago of two of their colleagues.
On Monday, the Times wrote, “Mr. de Blasio isn’t going to say it, but somebody has to: With these acts of passive-aggressive contempt and self-pity, many New York police officers, led by their union, are squandering the department’s credibility, defacing its reputation, shredding its hard-earned respect. They have taken the most grave and solemn of civic moments — a funeral of a fallen colleague — and hijacked it for their own petty look-at-us gesture. In doing so, they also turned their backs on Mr. Ramos’s widow and her two young sons, and others in that grief-struck family.”
In the meantime, on Tuesday, the Times cited a New York Post article that found that, for the week that began the day the officers were shot, “officers are essentially abandoning enforcement of low-level offenses.” Writes the Times, “traffic citations had fallen by 94 percent over the same period last year, summonses for offenses like public drinking and urination were down 94 percent, parking violations were down 92 percent, and drug arrests by the Organized Crime Control Bureau were down 84 percent.”
They continue, “The data cover only a week, and the reasons for the plunge are not entirely clear. But it is so steep and sudden as to suggest a dangerous, deplorable escalation of the police confrontation with the de Blasio administration.”
The Times calls this action “repugnant and inexcusable.” They write, “It amounts to a public act of extortion by the police.”
“This is not a slowdown for slowdown’s sake,” a police source told the New York Post. “Cops are concerned, after the reaction from City Hall on the Garner case, about de Blasio not backing them.”
The Tuesday editorial proceeds to make the case that the police are not justified in such an extreme reaction – but even if they were, putting the public at risk seems petty and self-serving, and ultimately will undermine whatever self-righteous indignation they have.
But are they putting the public at risk? At the heart of the New York Police Department’s policy is a theory developed in the early 1980s by Professors George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in an article in the Atlantic Monthly.
The theory posits that cracking down on minor disorder – vandalism and other acts – can cut down on violent crime as well.
“If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” the men wrote nearly 33 years ago. “This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”
But the theory was already under attack before the NYPD unwittingly put it to a test.
In August, following the death of Eric Garner, the New York Times wrote an article noting that “Critics denounce the theory as neoconservative pablum resulting in overpolicing and mass incarceration for relatively minor offenses that disproportionately target poor, black and Hispanic people. Moreover, they say it was not derived from scientific evidence and its connection to the city’s drastic decline in major crime remains unproven.”
Professor Wilson, a long time respected researcher at Harvard and UCLA, died in 2012. His co-author, Professor Kelling, at 78 remains active as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research institute.
He told the Times, that he still believes that their theory and plunging crimes rates are inextricably linked.
However, the Times quotes Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, who told the paper that he believes that enlisting officers to pursue minor offenses is “too expensive and undermines public confidence in the police.”
Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at City University School of Law, said: “While broken windows doesn’t lead inexorably to a homicide like Eric Garner’s, the more you turn loose 35,000 officers with the mandate to restore order, the more you increase the chances for something to go horribly wrong.
“Can someone argue that ‘restoration of order’ is at least partially responsible for the drop in reported crime?” Professor Zeidman said. “Sure, but the police commissioner acts like it is a causal relationship that has been proven and is irrefutable.”
The original article was based on a mid-1970s New Jersey program called “Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program,” however, the author acknowledged that “based on its analysis of a carefully controlled experiment carried out chiefly in Newark, the foundation concluded, to the surprise of hardly anyone, that foot patrol had not reduced crime rates.”
Instead, they argued, “But residents of the foot patrolled neighborhoods seemed to feel more secure than persons in other areas, tended to believe that crime had been reduced, and seemed to take fewer steps to protect themselves from crime (staying at home with the doors locked, for example).”
They write, “These findings may be taken as evidence that the skeptics were right- foot patrol has no effect on crime; it merely fools the citizens into thinking that they are safer. But in our view, and in the view of the authors of the Police Foundation study (of whom Kelling was one), the citizens of Newark were not fooled at all. They knew what the foot-patrol officers were doing, they knew it was different from what motorized officers do, and they knew that having officers walk beats did in fact make their neighborhoods safer.”
However, one study by University of Chicago professors Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig revisited broken windows and found little evidence to support the notion that the broken windows theory of cracking down on minor offenses leads to a decrease in more serious crime.
In fact quite the opposite, as some studies found that targeting minor crimes harms poor people and minorities. The same authors found that this policy might actually lead to a disproportionate number of drug arrests for blacks which bleeds into the New Jim Crow theory by Michelle Alexander.
Professor Kelling told the Times, “It started as an observation, but since then there’s been science… The burden’s on the other side to say there is no link between disorderly conditions and serious crime.”
That may be put to a test now. As the Business Insider reported earlier this week, “If the police don’t resume arresting people for minor crimes, however, they could end up testing whether the city’s aggressive ‘broken windows theory’ of policing actually works.”
It would be ironic because Mayor de Blasio, while campaigning on a promise to reduce the stop and frisk policies that antagonized minorities, has openly supported broken windows since taking office.
“Because of the broken-windows approach, we are the safest we’ve ever been. I lived through the 1980s in this city and the early ’90s, and I don’t ever want to go back there,” Mayor de Blasio told the Daily News.
De Blasio hired Bill Bratton – who had worked as NYPD commissioner in 1994 under Mayor Rudy Guiliani – to resume that position. Following the death of Mr. Garner, Mr. Bratton published a defense of broken windows for the City Journal.
“The NYPD’s critics object, in particular, to the department’s long-standing practice of maintaining order in public spaces,” he writes.
However, others believe that fewer arrests will be a good thing for New York and race relations.
“If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven’t they done it before?” the Atlantic, ironically the publication where the theory was first espoused, asked this week. “The human implications of this question are immense. Fewer arrests for minor crimes logically means fewer people behind bars for minor crimes. Poorer would-be defendants benefit the most; three-quarters of those sitting in New York jails are only there because they can’t afford bail. Fewer New Yorkers will also be sent to Rikers Island, where endemic brutality against inmates has led to resignations, arrests, and an imminent federal civil-rights intervention over the past six months. A brush with the American criminal-justice system can be toxic for someone’s socioeconomic and physical health.”
The Atlantic adds, “The NYPD might benefit from fewer unnecessary arrests, too. Tensions between the mayor and the police unions originally intensified after a grand jury failed to indict a NYPD officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner during an arrest earlier this year. Garner’s arrest wasn’t for murder or arson or bank robbery, but on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes—hardly the most serious of crimes. Maybe the NYPD’s new ‘absolutely necessary’ standard for arrests would have produced a less tragic outcome for Garner then. Maybe it will for future Eric Garners too.”
If NYPD can curb arrests for minor offenses without the crime rate ticking back up, does that mean the end of the broken windows theory which has put police departments on a collision course with blacks and other minorities? We’ll see.
—David M. Greenwald reporting