Zero Tolerance and Broken Windows Policing Criminalizes Homeless and Poor People ... and Can Kill Them

News & Politics

The recent death of homeless veteran Jerome Murdough in a Rikers Island cell should be more than a temporary debate in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it New York media cycle that often desensitizes us to tragedies. I know it hit close to home for myself — Mr. Murdough sought refuge the night of his arrest in an East Harlem public housing staircase three blocks from my home and across the street from my where my kids go to school. When sleeping in a staircase, I thought, lands you in a Rikers cell, something is wrong.

Murdough's death laid bare some of our collective disregard for the poor as well as an aggressive police department with an obsession for law and order rivaled only by military dictatorships and science fiction characters (i.e., RoboCop, Judge Dredd). Is it enough to have roundtable discussions lamenting the case of Mr. Murdough as one of someone slipping through the cracks? What happened to him is the not-so unpredictable outcome of a society heavily invested in enforcement by way of zero-tolerance policing and criminal justice system. It's an approach that is neither humane nor sustainable. But as some debate what stop-gap reforms or long term legislation might be crafted, let's not lose sight of how Murdough arrived at the cell he would die in: the NYPD and the low-level crime-focused Broken Windows theory that guides it.

This Thursday marks the 100th day of the Bill Bratton's 2nd stint as NYPD Commissioner. Bratton famously helped to introduce and popularize Broken Windows policing theory — which seeks to crack down on small, low-level crimes as a means to fighting crime overall — into one of the most dominant policing philosophies across the country. A country with a prison population that many recognize as untenable.

My own brushes with the law give me insight. I look back to a late night coming come on the A train when I would spend the night in jail after having my foot up on empty seat in front of me. Another man recently filed a lawsuit against the NYPD after an incident where he was charged with also having his foot on a subway seat. I didn't know it then, but this was my first encounter with Broken Windows policing and how the theory actually plays out in the lives of everyday people — not just hardened criminals or the homeless. I also got a sense of how easy it is to end up in jail.

After a night of hanging out with friends in 2010, I peered through the scratchy subway windows to see how much longer my ride home to the Rockaways would be. The train had been held in the station for a while, it seemed. Out of the corner of a sleepy, blurry eye I saw two cops poking their heads in and out of the train. They were looking for some knuckleheads, I thought. Not my problem. I was a 27-year-old student with a full time job and two kids. Just get this train moving already, the New Yorker in me demanded.

Then they asked me to step out of the train.

In all my years growing up I knew cops were sometimes trouble but I fortunately didn't have much first-hand experience. As the son of a working-class Colombian mother who had kept me out of trouble growing up, I was always reminded to not embarrass her or gain the attention of police. And I knew what cops were capable of. If you're a young man of color, you know. That's what made me shoot up onto my feet and step out as quickly and as politely as possible, even as small part of me was incensed that my train was going to leave and that I'd have to spend eons waiting for the next one.

A cop asked me to show him ID. I didn't have it with me. I had left my bag — with my wallet and phone inside — in my friend's car earlier that night. I knew that it wasn't against the law not to have ID, so I didn't think much of it. As my train left, my politeness gave way to me asking questions about why I was being detained. The initial response was that that I had my foot up on the seat. Then I was told that I "fit the descript" of someone. Since I didn't have ID and I was being detained then they'd have to confirm my identity by calling a family member, they told me. It was about 4:30 a.m. and without my phone the only number I knew offhand was my mother's. No. I refused to put my nervous mother through hell by having a cop call her at 4:30 in the morning about her son. Consequently I soon found my head being pushed down into a cop car for the first time in my life. The moment was now dawning on me and tears of rage filled my eyes, which were fully awake now.

I ended up spending that night and the next morning in a transit jail efficiently located in the back of a subway station in Rockaway Park. It was a tiny, brightly lit cell where it seemed no one could hear you scream. After confirming my identity (which I still haven't figured out how), the cop told me that I was getting a summons for having my foot up on the subway seat. He handed me the summons along with my shoelaces as I walked out wondering how many people had passed through these doors.

While I was lucky enough to walk out and pay a fine, Jerome Murdough's night didn't end so easily. The same might be said of Kalief Browder, the then 16-year-old teen who spent 33 months in Rikers without a conviction or trial. So while horror stories like those of Murdough and Browder force some of us to snap to attention, it's clear that any restructuring of a broken criminal justice system must also include a restructuring of policing. Our court system convicts masses of people — most of them poor and from communities of color — and our jails are a teeming with mentally ill New Yorkers. Sweeping up people for the smallest of crimes will only add water to a sinking ship.

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