A Bill Bratton profile in this week’s New Yorker reveals little that we didn’t already know about the NYPD commissioner. What we do hear about, over and over, is the ongoing commitment of Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio to “broken windows” policing—which Bratton pledges will be around for as long as he and de Blasio are in power.
The mayor himself declined to be interviewed for the piece, but Bratton worked hard to convey that he and his boss agree that cops should aggressively go after subway dancers and squeegee men, and that any rumored clashes between the two men should be disregarded. “There’s nothing we’ve disagreed on in the months I’ve worked for him,” the commissioner told the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. “He’s done more for the police than any mayor I’ve served in thirty years.”
Bratton makes the case that his critics are wrong to claim that broken windows policing unfairly targets poor people and people of color, that it antagonizes the people it is meant to protect, that it has very little discernible connection to crime reduction, that it is stop-and-frisk 2.0. Rather than stop largely poor and black people on the assumption that they might be committing a crime, like his predecessor Ray Kelly’s NYPD did, Bratton’s cops arrest poor and black people whom they know are committing crimes—heinous ones, like turnstile-jumping and drinking on their stoops.
With stop-and frisk, “An officer has a reasonable suspicion that a crime is committed, is about to be committed, or has been committed,” Bratton told Auletta, whereas “quality-of-life policing is based on probable cause—an officer has witnessed a crime personally, or has a witness to the crime. It’s far different”
If New Yorkers are being stopped for crimes they actually committed, rather than on the vague biased whims of beat cops, that’s a good thing. But when black and Hispanic people are being arrested under Bratton for quality-of-life misdemeanors like criminal mischief and carrying weed at twice or more the rate of whites—despite despite constituting comparatively small slices of the city’s population—the distinction between reasonable suspicion and probable cause may be a mostly symbolic one.
For evidence of this, read Auletta’s bleak description of a day at Manhattan Criminal Court during which only one of the 31 defendants appearing on misdemeanor charges was white—and he was homeless.
Two of the defendants had been apprehended the day before as trespassers for using a Port Authority bathroom that the police said required that they show a bus ticket. “They threw me against the wall, completely searched me, patted and frisked me in front of all these people, and threw cuffs on me,” Wendell Moore, a thirty-two-year-old man and a father of seven children, told me. The police found a cell phone on him that they claimed was not his. He spent the night in jail, and the next day was charged and released. “Other people going to that bathroom they didn’t stop,” Moore said. “They only stopped two black kids. They didn’t know who had tickets.”
But the most damning indictment of Bratton’s broken windows theory is the case of Eric Garner, who was stopped for allegedly selling loose cigarettes before his death at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. The crime that Garner committed is a “classic broken-windows offense,” Auletta writes. If Pantaleo weren’t acting on an explicit directive from the department to prioritize low-level, nonviolent offenders like Garner, he would likely still be alive today.
Bratton admitted that the widely circulated video of Garner’s death was “certainly disturbing,” but maintained that neither he nor the progressive mayor who appointed him would be doing anything about the ideology that caused it. “Quality-of-life policing is not going away. Not so long as I’m commissioner, and I don’t think so long as Mayor de Blasio is mayor,” Bratton said. “He understands it. He believes in it. We are committed to it.”