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The litter and public disorder on Manhattan streets have already become intolerable, but they will grow even worse under the retreat from Broken Windows policing just announced by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. In a surreal reversion to the reactive thinking that contributed to the sky-high crime rates of the early 1990s, the police and prosecutors are being asked to focus their attention on “serious crimes” instead of on low-level offenses like litter, public drinking, and public urination. Persons committing such allegedly “minor offenses” will now overwhelmingly be given a summons, rather than be arrested, and will have to pay a fine rather than face a judge.
This policy change will signal to police officers that the NYPD and Manhattan prosecutors do not regard public order offenses as a high priority
But it was the recognition that such allegedly minor offenses are often committed by individuals who are also committing more allegedly “serious” crimes that led to New York City’s record-breaking, unsurpassed crime drop starting in the mid-1990s. This policy change will signal to police officers that the New York Police Department and Manhattan prosecutors do not regard public order offenses as a high priority; it is unlikely that officers will continue to devote much attention to them.
Like all of the ongoing seismic changes in the criminal justice system, the attack on Broken Windows policing is driven by issues of race. But if the majority of arrests for public order offenses occur in minority neighborhoods, that is because the majority of such offenses occur there as well. Most importantly, it is in those neighborhoods where police commanders hear the most heartfelt requests for public order. Downgrading the police response to public disorder does a disservice to the residents who have to live with it.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute