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Shocking Videos of Police Brutality Put Bratton and NYPD on Defensive

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

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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.

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