This is an excerpt from “The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe”
Proactive policing — also called “broken windows” policing — is under attack.
Eric Garner’s death was a heartbreaking tragedy, but the unjustified backlash against misdemeanor enforcement is likely to result in more tragedy for New Yorkers.
One of the most effective remedies against urban anarchy over the past two decades, broken windows quells public fear of crime and restores order to fraying communities. William Bratton embraced it during his first tour as NYPD commissioner in the 1990s.
Subsequently, police commanders across the country also adopted it. But in 2014, longtime critics of the NYPD seized on the death of Eric Garner to call for an end to proactive policing.
Anger over Garner’s death was understandable. No one should die for selling untaxed cigarettes — or even for resisting arrest. But there was no connection between broken-windows policing and Garner’s death. It was Garner’s resistance to arrest that triggered the events leading to his death, however disproportionate that outcome, not the policing of illegal cigarette sales. Suspects resist arrest for all sorts of crimes. The only way to prevent the remote possibility of death following an attempted arrest is to make no arrests at all, even for felonies.
Leading the charge against broken-windows policing is Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociologist. Naturally, Vitale plays the race card, claiming that the NYPD disproportionately and unjustifiably targets minority neighborhoods for misdemeanor enforcement, resulting in the “overpolicing” of “communities of color.”
Vitale should spend more time in poor neighborhoods. No stronger proponents of public-order policing exist than law-abiding residents of high-crime areas. Go to any police-and-community meeting in Brooklyn, The Bronx or Harlem, and you will hear pleas such as the following: Teens are congregating on my stoop; can you please arrest them? SUVs are driving down the street at night with their stereos blaring; can’t you do something?
The targets of these complaints may have been black and Hispanic, but the people making the complaints, themselves black and Hispanic, didn’t care. They just want orderly streets.
The core concept of broken-windows policing — that low-level disorder breeds more crime by sending the message that public norms and law enforcement have broken down — has been confirmed.
In May 2014, a public meeting in East Harlem discussed at length how the police could break up an entrenched cluster of vagrants and shelter residents on Lexington Avenue and 125th Street; the unsightly gathering was a daily source of street fights and drug dealing. In another complaint that defies the critics of broken-windows policing, an emissary from Strive, a left-leaning job-placement program, asked the commander of the 25th Precinct to evict a female squatter who was selling drugs from her illegally occupied apartment. “Drugs are still the driving force of everything in our community,” he said.
All such complaints embody a truth ignored by criminologists and street-level agitators: the fierce yearning of the law-abiding poor to enjoy the same civility and order in their neighborhoods that the residents of Park Avenue take for granted in their own.
Vitale charges that the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes is enforced almost exclusively in communities of color. No surprise: That’s where the trade overwhelmingly occurs. Vitale claims that “in many courts around the boroughs,” 100 percent of those appearing for minor violations are people of color. Such a statistic only shows that the police are going where the crime and disorder are. All crime commission, whether felony or misdemeanor, is racially disproportionate.
The cop-critics also dispute the efficacy of quality-of-life policing. “There just isn’t any evidence that arresting squeegee men and aggressive panhandlers in Midtown Manhattan helps reduce robberies and shootings in the outer boroughs,” Vitale says. That argument is a straw man: No proponent of misdemeanor enforcement has ever attempted to prove such a geographically attenuated causal link. But Michael Jacobson of the City University of New York and James Austin of the JFA Institute, both liberal organizations, have shown that New York City’s misdemeanor enforcement led to a drop in felony arrests and felony incarcerations by getting potential felony offenders off the streets for low-level violations.
The core concept of broken-windows policing — that low-level disorder breeds more crime by sending the message that public norms and law enforcement have broken down — has been confirmed. Moreover, ending Midtown’s low-level lawlessness in the 1990s sparked the urban renaissance there, reviving the tourist and hospitality industries and producing thousands of jobs for outer-borough New Yorkers. To the extent that one believes that criminality is an economic problem, not a cultural one, New York’s public-safety-induced economic revival was the best anti-poverty and anti-crime program that the city has ever offered.
Vitale also argues that New York’s crime drop is no different from elsewhere: “The crime drop is a national and international phenomenon, and it’s been happening in cities that never had broken-windows policing,” he says.
More straw men. No one has ever claimed that broken-windows alone was responsible for the crime drop. But it was part of a related set of strategies that catapulted New York far ahead of the competition. New York’s crime drop far exceeded the national norm in degree and duration. It’s hard to find a police chief anywhere in the country who doesn’t advocate broken-windows policing, because commanders see with their own eyes its value in lowering crime and disorder.
The biggest threat facing minority New Yorkers now is not “overpolicing,” and certainly not brutal policing.
The NYPD has one of the lowest rates of officer shootings and killings in the country; it is recognized internationally for its professionalism and training standards. Deaths such as Eric Garner’s are an aberration, which the department does everything it can to avoid.
After years of ungrounded criticism from the press and activists... NYPD officers have radically and understandably scaled back their discretionary activity.
The NYPD fatally shot eight people in 2013, six of them black, all posing a risk to the police, compared with scores of blacks killed by black civilians. But facts do not matter when one is crusading to bring justice to a city beset by “centuries of racism.”
The biggest threat facing minority New Yorkers today is de-policing. After years of ungrounded criticism from the press and activists, after highly publicized litigation and the passage of ill-considered laws — such as the one making officers financially liable for alleged “racial profiling” — NYPD officers have radically and understandably scaled back their discretionary activity (pedestrian stops have dropped 80 percent citywide and almost 100 percent in some areas).
But in so doing, they risk turning their backs on law-abiding residents of high-crime communities who most need their assistance in maintaining order.
There is no New York City institution more dedicated to the proposition that “black lives matter” than the New York Police Department; thousands of black men are alive today who would have been killed years ago had data-driven policing not brought down the homicide levels of the early 1990s. Garner’s death was a heartbreaking tragedy, but the unjustified backlash against misdemeanor enforcement is likely to result in more tragedy for New Yorkers.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal.