Broken Windows Policing Doesn’t Work

It also may have killed Eric Garner.

Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
In the ’90s, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton presided over a surge in petty-crime law enforcement on the theory that vigorously enforcing the small laws in some way dissuades or prevents people from breaking the big ones. There’s little evidence that theory is correct.

Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

On July 17, 2014, an unarmed 43-year-old black man named Eric Garner was standing near the Staten Island Ferry dock when he was approached by several police officers. The cops suspected that Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes. A struggle ensued, and an officer named Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold. Garner died, and the New York City medical examiner eventually ruled it a homicide. But on Wednesday afternoon, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.

Why was Garner approached at all? Because of the emphasis on “broken windows policing” under NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. As Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s police commissioner in the 1990s, Bratton presided over a surge in petty-crime law enforcement, on the theory that vigorously enforcing the small laws in some way dissuades or prevents people from breaking the big ones. There’s little evidence that theory is correct. Nevertheless, mayor-elect Bill de Blasio brought Bratton back as New York’s police commissioner last December. Bratton’s return meant the return of broken windows policing. “If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of the big things,” Bratton said in March, spouting the broken windows gospel. It’s that philosophy as much as anything else is to blame for Eric Garner’s death.

Bratton was a popular figure during the Giuliani era because crime rates fell on his watch. While observers were quick to credit his policies for that decline, there’s no reason to think the drop in violent crime had anything to do with broken windows or Bratton’s vaunted Compstat, a computer program that tracks crime statistics citywide.

The drop in New York’s violent crime rate, then and now, is consistent with a broader nationwide trend. Rates of violent crime have steadily declined nationwide over the past two decades, and nobody is really sure why. The best argument I’ve seen suggests that violent crime began to fall around the same time that the crack boom started to wane in the early 1990s. The rates have been dropping across the country since then.

We do know that the declines in violent crime in New York have been comparable to declines in cities that didn’t use Compstat or broken windows. As criminologist Richard Rosenfeld put it in a 2002 paper, “homicide rates also have decreased sharply in cities that did not noticeably alter their policing policies, such as Los Angeles, or that instituted very different changes from those in New York, such as San Diego.” The takeaway: Crime just keeps going down everywhere. Nobody is sure why.

In New York, broken windows has replaced stop-and-frisk as the controversial police tactic du jour. During his 2012 campaign, de Blasio pledged to rein in the ineffective and racist stop-and-frisk policies of Michael Bloomberg, and he has followed through on that promise. Meanwhile, de Blasio’s Republican mayoral opponent, Joseph Lhota, made the supposed glories of stop-and-frisk the centerpiece of his own doomed campaign. Lhota blasted de Blasio’s “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime,” and predicted that abandoning stop-and-frisk would turn New York City into something like the hellscape depicted in The Warriors, with gangs and street punks running roughshod over police officers.

This hasn’t happened. In a recent press conference, de Blasio and Bratton announced that violent crime rates are poised for historic lows in 2014. The New York Times reports that robberies and grand larcenies have both declined since 2013. The city’s homicide count sits at 290 as of Dec. 1, which puts New York on pace to beat last year’s record low homicide count of 335. And all this in a year when the New York Police Department is poised to log fewer than 50,000 stop-and-frisk incidents—a figure nearly 10 times lower than it was at New York’s stopping-and-frisking peak. Take that, Joe Lhota!

But this shouldn’t be surprising. Under the Bloomberg administration, hundreds of thousands of people were detained by police each year via the department’s stop-and-frisk program. Close to 90 percent of those people were released without charges after the stopping officers found nothing illegal. Whatever effect stop-and-frisk may have had as a deterrent was likely offset by the fact that it taught innocent people to fear and avoid the police. Stopping people who are doing nothing wrong on the grounds that they look vaguely suspicious only serves to alienate cops from the communities they’re supposed to serve.

With the decline of stop-and-frisk and the return of broken windows, the NYPD has traded one dubious tactic for another. When Bratton was appointed in December 2013, de Blasio positioned him as the opposite of his predecessor as police commissioner, Ray Kelly, saying in a press conference that “public safety and respect for the public aren’t contradictory ideas.” Bratton, for his part, promised policies of “mutual respect and mutual trust,” and vowed that “I will get it right in this city once more”—implying, of course, that he had gotten it right the first time. Three months later, the New York Times reported that arrests of subway panhandlers had tripled since Bratton took over, and that there had been “a noticeable spike in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments.”

This renewed emphasis on misdemeanor “quality of life” arrests has sparked renewed criticisms from community members who are tired of being hassled. These criticisms spiked after Garner’s death in July. Six members of New York’s congressional delegation sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter noting that “Mr. Garner’s death has taken place in the context of a broken windows policing strategy that appears to target communities of color for the enforcement of minor violations and low-level offenses.”

Two weeks after Garner’s death, de Blasio held a press conference to address these criticisms and defend broken windows. “Breaking a law is breaking a law, and it has to be addressed,” said de Blasio.

That’s nonsense. The cornerstone of effective policing is discretion. If the cops enforced every single law on the books in every single precinct at all hours of the day, New York City would become a police state. Is that what de Blasio and Bratton want?

For mayors and police commissioners, being “tough on crime” means actively implementing some specific policy. But given that violent crime seems to be declining on its own regardless of what they do, there’s a case to be made that de Blasio and Bratton are only making things worse. Here’s a suggestion for a new policing policy for New York City: First, do no harm.