Why Broken Windows Policing Is So Broken

Turnstile jumping is on the rise in New York City subways. Today, the New York Daily News published an analysis of data that detailed the increase in arrests for fare-beating busts made by officers. In the last five years, turnstile jumping apprehensions have ballooned by 69 percent—24,747 arrests were made last year as opposed to 14,681 in 2008 —and will likely increase in 2014.

But the Daily News report also reveals a far more troubling fact: Broken windows policing is not working.

"These numbers illustrate, once again, the failure of broken windows policing," Justine Olderman, a managing director at Bronx Defenders, told the Daily News. "The NYPD trots out this justification that they're arresting people for minor infractions as a way of keeping violent crime down, and yet there is no evidence to show that there's any correlation between turnstile jumping and violence."

In December of 2013, when New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio announced Bill Bratton as his pick for police chief, the two held a press conference dedicated to reassuring New Yorkers that the NYPD was about to begin a new chapter.

"I don't want to do it all over again the same way," Bratton said. "[I want to work] together in a collaboration where there is mutual respect and there is mutual trust."

After years of New York's communities of color being under siege from aggressive policing tactics like stop-and-frisk, promoted heavily by de Blasio's predecessor Michael Bloomberg and his police chief Ray Kelly, Bratton's new message of change brought hope to city residents.

But last week seemed to confirm the worst fears of many that de Blasio and Bratton are just as out of touch as their predecessors.

On same day that police violently assaulted peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and after weeks of police misconduct in New York, de Blasio gave a passionate defense of the NYPD.

"When a police officer comes to the decision that it's time to arrest someone, that individual is obligated to submit to arrest," he said.

Statements like that, coming so soon after a slew of incidents involving police brutality, most notably the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner—allegedly choked to death by a police officer who was trying to restrain him—have many rethinking their optimistic assessment of New York's leaders.

The first seven months of the de Blasio administration may have proved that stop-and-frisk was just the tip of the iceberg of a larger problem in New York City: Broken windows policing, which involves cracking down on minor infractions in hopes of preventing major crimes.

Community-rights advocates have said the death of Garner was just the most visible sign that broken windows policing is inherently racist and classist, and if the NYPD wants to gain back the trust of New Yorkers, it may not be a question of reform but a total rethinking of what policing means.

"Broken windows is not an issue you just tinker with," said Khary Lazarre-White, the director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a Harlem-based organization that works with at-risk youth to prevent violence in the community. "It needs a massive response. There's no one way to do it, but the change has to come from the top. The Mayor has to say, "This is no longer the way we do business.'"

Why Broken Windows Policing Is So Broken

Some weeks ago, Caleb Dorsainvil, a 23-year old Brooklyn resident, was taking a half-hour break from his job at a Walgreens in Fort Greene when an unmarked cop car pulled up. Three white police officers stepped out. One officer accused Dorsainvil of throwing a joint on the ground, something Dorsainvil denies. The officers surrounded him, searched his pockets and felt up his clothes, telling him they just had to make sure he wasn't carrying drugs.

"Usually I would talk back," Dorsainvil said. "But they choked a guy to death. I made sure to get out of there alive."

Dorsainvil's encounter was one of hundreds of thousands black and Hispanic New Yorkers experience each year: cops stopping, searching, and sometimes arresting people for seemingly little to no reason. Some of those encounters, like Dorsainvil's, end in silence. Others end in death.

On July 17, a video emerged online of police officers confronting Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island father, for allegedly selling cigarettes on the street. In the video, Garner says he hasn't done anything wrong and asks the police to leave him alone. But the officers persist, wrestling him to the ground and placing him in a chokehold. Garner repeatedly screams, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe." Gasping for air, Garner goes into cardiac arrest and dies. Two officers involved in the incident—Justin Damico and Daniel Pantaleo—were stripped of their gun and badge days later, and the medical examiner has ruled the death a homicide.

The video sparked outrage across the city, with vigils and protests drawing hundreds.

"We saw the inhumanity that was caught on that video and we say that it ends today," one New York Councilwoman said at a vigil held for Garner on Staten Island.

But the Garner video was followed by several others. One video showed a pregnant woman in East New York being confronted by an officer for illegally grilling on the sidewalk. The woman was eventually pushed forward and placed in a chokehold as well, a tactic not permitted by the NYPD. Another video showed a man in East Harlem being tackled and placed in a chokehold for allegedly failing to pay his subway fare. Another showed NYPD officers dragging a half-naked woman out of her apartment and tackling her.

These videos, according to activists and experts, are not just documents of isolated incidents of police brutality, but signs of an inherent flaw in New York's policing strategy.

Broken windows has no precise definition, but most criminal justice experts agree that at its core the strategy is about taking low-level crimes like turnstile jumping or selling small amounts of weed very seriously, with the theory that stopping these small crimes will prevent more serious ones. The strategy, popularized in the 1980s, gets its name from the idea that a neighborhood with lots of broken windows is more attractive to criminals than one kept in pristine condition.

The idea came under intense scrutiny during Mayor Bloomberg's administration, as tens of thousands of black and Hispanic men were stopped, frisked, and often detained for seemingly no reason other than being outside and not white.

Bill de Blasio campaigned on the idea that that kind of blatantly racist policing would end. But, so far it hasn't.

Experts admit that community relations could worsen even as de Blasio's and Bratton's curtailing of stop-and-frisk proves that stop-and-frisk was just a symptom of the NYPD's problem with poor communities of color.

"The primary premise [of broken windows], whether spoken or unspoken, is about policing the poor," said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The people who live in a neighborhood with a broken window and can't afford to fix that window."

In other words, if the NYPD is policing crimes that might have more to do with circumstance than malintent—selling weed because it's a way to make money in an unfair economy, squeegeeing windows to afford a meal—then the agency is essentially criminalizing the behavior of New York's most marginalized and disadvantaged communities.

Bill Bratton is one of the strategy's biggest champions, and turned New York into the world's largest broken windows experiment when he was appointed Commissioner under Rudolph Giuliani in 1994.

The controversies were the same then as they are now. Bratton came under fire for being hostile to the poor, saying in the early 90s that squeegee men should, "get off their asses and get jobs." He was even booed at a community meeting because of his outwardly hostile attitude towards parents whose kids had been victims of police brutality.

But Bratton also pioneered community-focused approaches to policing as the chief of Los Angeles' department in the early 2000s, giving pastors, non-profit mediators, and other leaders of neighborhoods a voice in how their streets were policed.

His tenure in Southern California gave the critics of the Bloomberg and Kelly years hope that New York's relationship with its police force could change for the better once Bratton was selected as commissioner under de Blasio.

But now there's a palpable sense in New York—whether it's cops allegedly beating a handcuffed mentally ill man, or arresting the man that filmed Garner's death—that the city is only experiencing the aggressive side of Bratton's theories.

"We have no evidence that the most troubling policies are any different under the new administration," said Linda Sarsour, the director of the Arab American Association of New York, one of dozens of community groups that opposed stop-and-frisk under Bloomberg. "In the community, people are angry. They're outraged because they feel nothing has changed."

A new report from the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) based on NYPD data shows the feeling on the streets might be right: Misdemeanor arrests have remained largely level from Bloomberg to de Blasio, with 94,243 arrests made in the first five months of 2013, and 97,487 made in the first five months of 2014. The racial breakdown is equally unequal under de Blasio as well: 86.8 percent of people charged with misdemeanors during de Blasio's first five months in office were people of color, compared with 86 percent during the same period last year.

The PROP report also compiled select stories of arrests from court documents: officers arresting a woman with a license to sell flowers because two of the flowers on her cart were artificial; an officer arresting a man for having his backpack on an adjacent seat on in a subway car; officers stopping a 14-year-old girl on her way to school, and arresting her for truancy when she questioned why she was being stopped.

The statistics and anecdotes from PROP, seen alongside the string of troubling videos released in the past few weeks, paint a troubling picture of broken windows policing. Community advocates say if that style of policing can't work under a mayor like de Blasio, it's obvious it can't work at all.

"Stop-and-frisk and arresting people for selling loose cigarettes are both just expressions of a kind of invasive policing based on broken windows," said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and prominent advocate for police reform. "Once you engage in that kind of mass criminalization then you're going to have problems inevitably. You're going to have a breakdown of perceived police legitimacy, and you're going to have acts of resistance that lead to (police) brutality."

Why Broken Windows Policing Is So Broken

There are other ways of policing—ones that value intense engagement with communities over intense policing of them. And many say the last few months show it's high time that New York City consider them.

In 1996, as youth violence skyrocketed in many major metropolises, Boston's police implemented a program called Operation Ceasefire. The program used community-based policing methods for gangs in the city's highest crime areas: Police would talk directly to gang members and warn them of the consequences of violence, and church leaders and community groups would intervene in gang disputes in an attempt to quell violence before it started. The community-level effort was coupled with an "all-levers" approach to justice for repeat offenders—using every tool and the maximum punishments available to get those who committed the majority of violent crimes off the streets. The program resulted 64 percent reduction in youth homicides in five years, according to researchers at Harvard University.

Boston is not the only city where community approaches to crime have worked. From Baltimore to Chicago to San Diego, studies have shown that community-based policing can help reduce violent crime while mending relations between the cities' most underserved communities and the forces that are meant to protect them.

The specific programs differ from city to city. Some focus on training police to interact with community members more amicably. Others allow community organizations to take over some roles traditionally performed by cops, such as the mediation of disputes. But they all have one thing in common: allowing local communities to have a say in how they're served by police.

"The current situation [in New York] proves police are not in the best position to decide how to police high-crime areas," said Jones-Brown. "Community-based approaches mean that community members of all walks of life get to be involved in deciding what works best in keeping crime under control. That's what needs to take place in New York."

For a brief period in New York's history, that kind of policing actually did take place.

In the early 1990s Mayor David Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown took a community-based policing pilot program active in one precinct and expanded it to the entire department. While research showed that Dinkins' approach was working, it was quickly changed when Giuliani took control of the city in 1994, and hired Bratton as his police commissioner.

"That's when the police started to see themselves as crime fighters only," Jones-Brown said.

Now, New York City is in the odd position of being governed by a mayor who actively campaigned against the crime fighting techniques that were popularized by Giuliani, while being policed by a man who helped institute those very techniques. But for police reform advocates, there are some small signals that policing can be fundamentally changed in New York, despite Bratton's history.

Increasingly, city leaders, including both the Brooklyn and Manhattan District Attorneys, are coming out against prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests. That may show the justice system in the city is nearing a turning point in how it views minor crimes.

And several small community-based crime intervention programs, like Brotherhood/Sister Sol in Harlem, Man Up in Brownsville, and S.O.S. in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, are showing promising signs of helping reduce crime by working with gangs and kids at risk of joining them. All without the need for aggressive police intervention.

Community leaders and police reform experts believe it's now up to de Blasio and Bratton to take those signals of change seriously.

"None of these things are a panacea—they're not going to solve all problems in a community, but they're cheaper and more effective than relying on broken windows policing," Vitale said. "We just need more funding, and we need the police to step back and let those programs work."

Peter Moskowitz is a writer from New York City. Follow him on Twitter.

[Photo via Shutterstock]