Civil Liberties

Shocking Videos of Police Brutality Put Bratton and NYPD on Defensive

Can digital media help put a stop to NYPD's broken-windows policing?

We’ve come to know the horror of the Israeli government’s campaign in Gaza through digital media over traditional news. Digital exchange also allows us to bypass the PR spin of law enforcement and bear witness to the brutality of American policing.

New York City is an extreme but emblematic example of a nationwide trend. Days after Staten Island resident Eric Garner was choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, footage emerged of an NYPD officer choking a pregnant woman because of a barbeque grill improperly placed on a sidewalk. The day after a medical examiner declared Garner’s death a homicide, someone uploaded video of a dozen NYPD officers dragging a naked woman out of her apartment, amid screams from her family and neighbors, for allegedly hitting her 12-year-old daughter.

The current spike in NYPD abuse is not new, but our ability to record and expose it is. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton now confronts a media landscape that is considerably more complex and decentralized than the one he mastered in the '90s. How he guides the NYPD through the current round of scandals will have important implications for how police everywhere try to control the narrative of police violence in the digital age. Bratton would have us believe that recent cases were the work of a few bad-apple cops in a barrel of good ones, but the repeated occurrence of brutality this summer reveals a systemic problem rooted in a race- and class-based approach to policing.  

Broken Windows 1994

Back in the early 1990s, New York City’s murder rates were the highest in recorded history. For all the fire breathing of tough-on-crime conservatives, draconian measures like mandatory minimum sentencing and supposed “three-strikes” laws weren’t having the deterrent effect promised.

Conditions were ripe to try something new: “broken windows” policing, a crime reduction strategy predicated on cracking down on small crimes—panhandling, drinking in public, skipping on train fares—rather than harsh sentencing. Also known as community policing and quality-of-life policing, the strategy moved from theory to practice when Bratton took the reins of the NYPD under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1994. 

At the time, broken windows was seen as a “liberal response to crime,” according to criminologist Bernard Harcourt. “The argument [of broken windows proponents] was, ‘We don’t need to impose long sentences…instead we can just clean up the city and get rid of minor disorder.’ It was Clintonesque kind of policy.”  

Broken windows appealed to a wide spectrum of political convictions within the white middle-class majority who learned about the policing strategy from the nightly news. But Commissioner Bratton wanted to quash any dissent over his methods before it bubbled up in print or television, so he leveraged his instincts for showmanship to curry media favor.

“Always reaching for just the right symbol, [Bratton] physically removed a panhandler from a subway car in his first week in office, and in the presence of news photographers, took away the badges of officers accused of corruption in the 30th Precinct in Harlem,” reported the New York Times in November 1994. The commissioner even brought on a former television reporter named John Miller to be his deputy commissioner, who advised his boss to open up the NYPD to cop-based reality shows for the first time.

By 1996, New York’s top cop was gracing the cover of Time magazine, buoyed by a nationwide drop in violent crime. While the causes of the crime drop are still contested, the commissioner claimed victory for his methods in New York City, and the media mostly went along with his proclamations.

But underneath the media fervor were untold stories of harassment and police violence in the low-income communities—the invisible casualities of the broken windows crusade. Quality-of-life policing was exclusively enforced in the poorest areas of the city, as it still is today, and its targets ranged from impoverished vagrants to working-class people. Even if you weren’t poor, if you were dark-skinned, you were likely to be hassled: in 1996 a black executive for the Wall Street Journal and his mother were arrested for allegedly trying to beat a subway fare, attracting media attention. But that sort of thing didn’t happen too often, and the Bratton-media PR parade continued without a hitch until he left his post that year.

It would be almost 20 years before the commissioner returned to the NYPD. That was enough time for a revolution in media to undermine everything he knew about winning a narrative.

Broken Windows 2014

The biggest catalyst to ending stop-and-frisk in New York City wasn’t meticulous record-keeping by the ACLU, but a recording made by a teenaged kid named Alvin as two members of the NYPD roughed him up without provocation. “Dude, I’m gonna break your fuckin’ arm, then I’m gonna punch you in the fuckin’ face,” one officer is heard snarling.

After the recording was published in the Nation, stop-and-frisk shot to the fore of national consciousness, culminating in new municipal legislation barring the NYPD from making indiscriminate stops. Had the encounter happened even five years before, Alvin would have had few means of broadcasting his story.

Bratton stepped back into his role as police commissioner on the heels of the stop-and-frisk pushback. As media-conscious as ever, he told the New York Post in February that stop-and-frisk was “one of the tools used…too extensively,” despite having endorsed it in the past. Yet for all his TV-savvy, the commissioner’s handling of new media has shown he’s having trouble obfuscating the systemic police harassment in low-income communities he instigated a decade ago.

It took less than an hour for the Twitter hashtag #myNYPD to transform from a clueless cop campaign into a referendum on the NYPD as an institution. But even that fiasco didn’t portend Bratton’s current summer of disaster, as videos of police choking, punching and stomping black New Yorkers flow onto social networks and coalesce into an indictment against his brand of policing.

In the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death, the commissioner has tried to quell the firestorm with a scattershot of methods: promising to retrain the entire NYPD force; appearing alongside another relic from the past, Al Sharpton; and dismissing activists calling for his resignation as “the usual cast of characters.”

This usual cast of characters now has the tools to transmit the experiences of broken windows’ victims—experiences wealthier, whiter constituents would never tolerate. New Yorkers Against Bratton has spearheaded direct actions against the NYPD this summer, also sending its members to speak with people hassled and hurt by police. Closely related groups like People’s Justice maintain active cop-watch patrols around the city, and organizations like the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), composed of veterans of the criminal justice system, have the ears of some influential platforms. (Full disclosure: I have consulted for PROP and volunteered with People’s Justice.)

Already, guerrilla coverage of broken window excess has unraveled the bedrock of support the commissioner enjoyed from old media. Following the Garner video, the New York Times rescinded its support for broken windows, and soon after the New York Daily News published a critical analysis of the city’s court summonses that revealed quality-of-life policing targets blacks and Hispanics at a rate 6 times higher than whites. 

Broken Windows 2024?

As a consequence of social media ubiquity, America’s police commissioners and chiefs have much less ability to filter the unflattering realities of their squads through news-ready sound bites and photo ops. 

How will they adapt? At least one recent maneuver, tweeted by the NYPD, provides a clue: Two weeks after Eric Garner’s death, police and community leaders organized an impromptu memorial for Garner that momentarily cooled tensions between cops and community. But improvised stunts are not substitutes for actual change. 

More recently and distressingly, it seems NYPD officers are using social media to double down in defense of a culture of impunity. Vocative reports:

In the latest twist, to show solidarity, officers (and their friends) are being asked to change their Facebook profile picture to an upside-down and backward NYPD flag—a flag that was first introduced to the department in 1919. An upside-down flag is a signal of distress…the idea actually seems to be catching on, though it’s tough to gauge how pervasive the “United We Stand for NYPD” movement is just yet.

The officers and their supporters also plan to hold a rally on September 6 outside the Staten Island precinct to “protest the ‘unfair’ choke hold judgement" that ruled Garner's death a homicide. 

Such blatant and obtuse denialism will only alienate an alien police force even further from the communities it patrols. Regardless of the NYPD's next move, the victims of broken windows policing will continue documenting and broadcasting every abuse until something finally gives.

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_