The Controversial “Broken Windows” Policy

Analysis of NYPD Commissioner Bratton’s Policing Style

By Clifford Michel

The protest was one of many that have taken place in New York City ever since the death of Eric Garner on July 17, after he was put into a chokehold by an NYPD officer for selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island’s north shore.

“Dr. King would be marching along with us today, denouncing the brutality of Broken Windows policing,” said Carmen Perez, co-founder of Justice League NYC, a criminal justice advocacy group.

“[Broken Windows] shatters and cuts the hopes for justice in communities of color.”

Left-leaning politicians and organizations have denounced the policy as inherently racist, but Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is a staunch liberal himself, has showed signs that the policy is here to stay.

A little after a month since he was elected as the 109th Mayor of New York City, Mayor de Blasio announced that Bill Bratton would replace Ray Kelly as the NYPD’s Commissioner.

Dismissing Commissioner Kelly was a surprise to no one.

The crux of de Blasio’s entire campaign was spent decrying the police department’s stop, search, question, and frisk policy.

But some wondered if Bratton would be more of the same as he initially showed mild support for stop and frisk.

“They will put in more oversight, more guidance, more training; it’s all for the good,” Bratton told reporters at the Manhattan Institute in June of 2013. “At the same time, they can’t do away with it.”

Bratton did indeed severely curtail stop and frisk.

The commissioner projected in November that there will be approximately 50,000 stops in 2014, down 75 percent from the year before.

As for Broken Windows, Bratton has stayed steadfast in his defense of the controversial policing style.

“In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, we as a country, and a police profession, drifted away from the emphasis on prevention and focused most of our time on trying to respond to the growing crime and disorder problems” the Huffington Post’s Christopher Mathias reported Bratton as saying at a Crain’s’ Business Breakfast in September.

The Broken Windows policy was first pre-sented by criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson in the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1982 issue.

Kelling and Wilson cited a psychological report by Philip Zimbardo in 1969 that showed that a car left along with its hood up in the Bronx was approached by a family, which took the car’s battery and radiator, within 10 minutes of the car being left alone.

Soon after came an onslaught of vandals: graffiti, a broken window, and some parts were completely turned off.

Zimbardo left another car in Palo Alto, California with its hood up and it stayed untouched for over a week.

Zimbardo then smashed the car with a sledgehammer and residents soon began to join in.

Kelling and Wilson suggest that the reason the two cars had such different faiths is because of the culture within the two communities: In the Bronx it is assumed that no one cares and that no one will be held accountable for the crime, while in Palo Alto the opposite is believed to be true.

So in order to convert the culture of policing from one that is actively fight crime, to one that is actively maintaining public safety.

This is where the broken windows analogy comes in: if police don’t take any action after one broken window, than the theory states that all the windows of the building will soon be broken and a culture of lawlessness will take over the neighborhood.

That’s why, more often than three or four years ago, you may come across a video of NYPD officers arresting a homeless man that’s stretched out on the seats of a subway cart. Or, as seen with Garner, aggressively arresting someone for minor misdemeanors, such as selling loose cigarettes.

Bratton doesn’t shy away from this analysis.

“Indeed, the Broken Windows metaphor is one of deterioration: a building where a broken window goes unrepaired will soon be subject to far more extensive vandalism—because it sends a message that the building owners (and, by extension, the police) cannot or will not control minor crimes…,” Bratton wrote in City Journal, where he directly cited the Garner incident in his defense of the policy.

Organization from New York City submitted detailed testimony to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing.

Communities United for Police Reform cited the detrimental effects of the policy on males of color who are targeted at a higher and have trouble securing jobs or loans afterwards.

John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice reported alternative policing tactics that have been successful, such as in San Diego where crime has seen similar success compared to New York.

But instead of making mass arrests, the police department reacted by taking away opportunistic crimes, which are crimes that occur because the opportunity is simply there.

Partisan publications, such as Slate and the Gothamist, and non-partisan publications, such as the Gotham Gazette and the New York Times, have also heavily criticized Bratton’s policy.

“If Mr. Bratton believes that “broken windows” is indispensable to keeping the city safe—and perhaps it is—then he must retool and reframe it,” wrote Ginia Bellafanta in the New York Times.

“A process that might begin not with the arrogant dismissal of its critics, but with an admission and some attention to where it has gone wrong or at least real recognition that, like any system, it is imperfect.”

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