Human Rights

Broken Windows Policing Is Racist, and Doesn't Work, Unless...

Unless, the goal is mass incarceration and pushing millions into the criminal justice system.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Between 1993 and 2005, the number of summonses handed out by New York City police rose from 160,000 each year to a high of 648,638. That period encompases the Giuliani years, an era in which the city’s lawmakers and law enforcers—most notably, then-transit cop head and current police commissioner William Bratton—zealously applied the “broken windows” approach to policing. According to the theory, ignoring minor crimes emboldens criminals and invites societal breakdown, while vigorous enforcement of laws helps maintain societal order and public safety.

In turn, over the last two decades the city’s cops have been tasked with making arrests and issuing millions of summonses for low-level infractions such as public drinking, bicycling on the sidewalk, loitering and other “quality of life” infractions, which are policed aggressively, and in communities of color, excessively. This is how the crime of selling single, untaxed cigarettes, as Eric Garner was allegedly doing the day he was murdered, became punishable by his death.

It is a hefty and unconscionable price to pay for a policy that has never been proved to work and which a city agency is now calling into question. After a year of analyzing the numbers, the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD announced this week that there is no statistical proof supporting the idea that quality-of-life enforcement has an impact on crime. A press release about the study’s findings states there is “no evidence demonstrating a clear, direct link between an increase in summons activity and a related drop in felony crime.” Noting that there has been, in recent years, a decline in summonses, the report notes there’s been no resulting rise in felony crimes. In fact, “with few exceptions” the study “revealed no correlation over time to any increase or decrease in felony crime.”

In addition to being ineffective, the investigator’s office also determined that broken windows policing is unequally applied along racial lines. “The distribution of quality-of-life enforcement activity in New York City was concentrated in precincts with high proportions of black and Hispanic residents, [public housing] residents, and males aged 15-20,” the release states. Even when controlling for differences in crime rates, the broken window patrolling of black and Hispanic neighborhoods far exceeded that of majority white ones. The finding syncs with previous analyses of the troubling issues plaguing the city’s broken windows policing policy.

A 2014 investigation by the New York Daily News found quality-of-life policing had created “two cities, one primarily populated by whites, where minor infractions like drinking on a stoop or smoking a joint are rarely punished, and another, primarily populated by blacks and Hispanics, where walking down the street could be cause for interrogation.” The newspaper found that between 2001 and 2013, an estimated 7.3 million people were issued violations by the police, 81 percent of whom were African American or Hispanic. Nearly all the summonses for minor—and incredibly common—infractions were issued to black and Hispanic New Yorkers, including spitting (92 percent), loitering (89 percent) and disorderly conduct (88 percent). While the city’s Department of Health estimates that just 17 percent of dogs are licensed, meaning less than one-fifth of dog owners of any race have registered their pets, African Americans and Hispanics are pretty much the only ones being cited for it (91 percent).

Blacks and Hispanics weren’t only heavily policed in the neighborhoods where they represent the majority of the residents, they were far more likely to be given summonses when they were in majority white sections of the city:

In the [predominately white] Upper West Side-North, which was tied for having the biggest disparities, blacks and Hispanics got 131 of the 143 summonses for spitting that contained race data, 160 of the 232 summonses for failure to have a dog license that had race data, and 394 of the 411 summonses for loitering that had the information...The News found blacks and Hispanics received an estimated 87 percent of the open container summonses in the Morningside Heights precinct, which is dominated by the Columbia and City College of New York campuses. They also received 93 percent of the summonses for unlawful possession of marijuana.

"The traditional law enforcement excuse is that black and Latino neighborhoods suffer from disproportionately higher shares of crime, and that's why broken windows is disproportionately enforced. These numbers reveal that the broken windows strategy targets blacks and Latinos all throughout the city of New York, even in neighborhoods of relatively low crime," Representative Hakeem Jeffries, of Brooklyn, told the paper.

“You’ll see a disproportionately large percentage of young male blacks and young male Hispanics,” a criminal court employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Daily News. “It seems that only a certain kind of people are being targeted with this.”

The only way to answer a summons is to show up in court on a designated date and time to pay a fine that could be anywhere from $25 to $250. Aside from causing court backlogs and generally wasting time that could be better spent adjudicating more pressing issues, citations can also have devastating collateral consequences for those who receive them. Roughly 40 percent of people fail to show up for those appointments for a number of issues, from being unable to take off work to simply not having the money. (PBS Newshour reports that in New York City there are “1.4 million open arrest warrants for unresolved summonses dating back to the 1980s.”) In response, the court is legally bound to issue an arrest warrant. Many people, their summonses for innocuous crimes long forgotten over years, have no idea they have outstanding warrants until another minor scrape with the law brings them up.

There’s also the issue of police quotas. The monthly minimums of tickets and arrests that officers are pressured to make are technically illegal, but have long been rumored to exist throughout the force. (And not just in New York City, if you watched "The Wire.") "The culture is, you're not working unless you are writing summonses or arresting people," Adhyl Polanco, an NYPD officer who has sued the force over the issue, told NPR. Palanco alleges the unwritten quota is dubbed "20 and one,” meaning officers are expected to give out 20 summonses and make one arrest a month. “I can tell my supervisors that I took three people to the hospital and I saved their lives. That the child that I helped deliver is healthy. I can tell them that. But that's not going to cut it," Polanco said.

Though Police Commissioner Bratton and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have continued to push broken windows as a law enforcement strategy, the city has reined in its policing of minor crimes from the historic levels of previous years. The number of violations issued between 2010 and 2015 fell from 386,094 to 258,008. Earlier this year, a package of eight bills called the Criminal Justice Reform Act passed, changing several minor offenses—such as noise violations and being in city parks after hours—from criminal to civil matters. Still, as the Daily News notes, low-level crime policing still takes up plenty of police officers’ time. The paper reports that “writing out violations remains the most frequent activity of the New York City Police Department, far surpassing felony and misdemeanor arrests combined.”

In response to the study, the NYPD issued a lengthy message, stating, “The report fails to acknowledge what all New York City residents know: that every community in the city is safer and has a better quality of life due in large part to the extensive quality of life enforcement efforts and proactive policing that was implemented in 1994 by the New York City Police Department.”

In addition to the Inspector General’s Office, other sources have presented rebuttals to this idea. Kevin Drum, writing at Mother Jones, addressed the topic a couple of years ago:

[B]roken windows policing may well have been helpful in reducing New York's crime rate, but there's flatly no evidence that it's been pivotal. It's true that crime in New York is down more than it is nationally, but that's just because crime went up more in big cities vs. small cities during the crime wave of the '60s through the '80s, and it then went down more during the crime decline of the '90s and aughts. Kelling and Bratton can dismiss this as ivory tower nonsense, but they should know better. The statistics are plain enough, after all.

Source: Mother Jones

The NYPD also criticized the study, stating that “the report uses a narrow, five-year time period when overall crime rates have declined in New York City for more than two decades. To properly evaluate the impact of quality of life enforcement, the Inspector General should have gone back to 1990, when there was a record number of murders, shootings and violent crimes and examined the years before the decline and to present.”

“We were not writing a history of quality-of-life policing,” the Department of Investigation’s surprisingly snarky response states. “We were interested in what works now. As everyone in law enforcement knows, New York is a different city now, and data from 25 years ago does not speak to effective policing today.”

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Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.