City Council Reverses Course, Jumps Through NYPD’s ‘Broken Windows’

Josmar Trujillo Jun 3, 2014


The City Council's recent push to hire 1,000 new cops raises interesting questions. The questions aren't necessarily whether the potential hires, rookies coming on board sometime in 2015 (at the earliest), would combat the rise of shootings in communities of color that the councilmembers are pointing to, but, rather, the politics around a debate where "progressive" elected officials have out-Bratton-ed NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.

Everyone knows Bratton would take extra cops in his war on crime. He's said as much. But in spite of Bratton's measured comments that of course he'd take them but can do without, you can actually fire up clips of him on cable television in 2012-13 pointing to an undermanned NYPD as the primary cause for an "overuse" of Stop and Frisk–the central issue for every Democrat last year. This year it appears the Council, apparently done with its protests and marches, is trying to simply give America's supercop what he wants.

But weren't they just admonishing the NYPD for rampant harassment and racial discrimination just one administration ago? Things sure have changed with a self-described "progressive" in Gracie Mansion, haven't they?

Of course all of this gives credence to the Stop-and-Frisk doomsayers in the media and in the public who said policing reforms would would endanger us all and turn back NYC's clock to the bad-ol' days before the famous "Bratton Miracle" crackdowns of the 90's.  Last week's Daily News editorial, "Let cops be cops",  is a good example: "They must not relent on broken windows policing. They must also be prepared to more aggressively resume stop, question and frisk."

Since when did Bratton, champion of Broken Windows' obsessive focus on low-level crimes, take his foot off of the gas? Marijuana arrests, which often occur during stops by police when people are told to empty their pockets, have increased this year. Similarly, Bratton's crackdowns on panhandlers (replacing the fare-beaters of the 90's), subway dancers (replacing the Squeegee men) and even an immigrant women selling churros, don't seem like the actions of a man going soft on crime. In fact, even the self-reported decrease in Stop and Frisks by the NYPD should be taken with a grain a salt after a leaked legal memo from the city to the CCRB indicates cops might have a backdoor to frisking New Yorkers who are stopped for low-level arrests–which Broken Windows is fixated on. The city's Department of Investigation has launched an investigation–into the leak, not the tactic. 

So why are ostensibly "progressive" councilmembers like Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rosie Mendez and even Jumaane Williams (poster boy for the Stop and Frisk movement) so publicly clamoring for more cops? The answer is that that they are no longer speaking truth to power at City Hall and they aren't at odds with the mayor–or Bratton, for that matter. They've all played a part in putitng any grassroots demands for bonafide reforms squarely in the rearview mirror as the city renews its vows with Bratton's Broken Windows policing. In fact my guess is that many councilmembers, like members of the media, share in a religious-like, but ultimately unscientific belief that you reduce crime simply by adding more cops to the equation. You may get some murmurings around poverty and other factors (even Bratton acknowledges other "influences"), but they want those thousand cops at the end of the day, thank you very much. At the same council hearing where Bratton and counterterrorism go-to guy John Miller supported the idea of drone use for local law enforcement, it was also revealed that the NYPD is  already sending cops specialized in counterterrorism into NYCHA housing–an Orwellian future for communities of color.

So much of today's politics, in fact, go back to the legend of Broken Windows and its effect on the psyche of the city then–and now. The past arguments (identical to those today) of Bratton and George Kelling, co-founder of the theory, that advocated order-maintenance policing have dominated city politics since the Rudy Giuliani administration. Politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have credited historic drops in crime almost exclusively to Bratton. They have hailed his innovations, sought his endorsements and made his theory practically sacrosanct in a city that otherwise debates policy from all angles. But many of the alternative explanations for crime-reduction, like those that pointed to the economic boom of the 90's coupled with the end of the Crack era, were left by the wayside as everyone celebrated the super-cop and his no-nonsense style. Few will remember that a number of scholars from Harvard and the University of Chicago, whom Bratton dismissed as "Ivory tower academics", raised questions and poked holes into the research and narrative of Broken Windows. 

So while the legend of Bratton's Broken Windows looms large then perhaps it's not surprising that the political parameters can seem so narrow. Opinions as far right as the Manhattan Institute as well as the Daily News and Post editorial boards won't really differ all too much from those of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the city council: high-crime communities of color need more policing–either through more aggressive tactics or more boots on the ground. However, cooler-heads might remember how back in the 70's and 80's, the collective chorus of media and politicians created the political climate for a heavy-handed War on Drugs–a "war" that didn't stop drugs but did incarcerate thousands and thousands of Black men.

As Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale, who pushed back at the council, pointed out, there are other ways to deter violence in urban neighborhoods–like community based groups who focus on conflict resolution alternatives. Instead of calling for more policing, the city council should instead refocus itself to more fundamentally reforming the NYPD–which has a long way to go before it can call itself a "community" policing force. Many residents of high-crime neighborhoods don't trust cops–with good reason. And, frankly, Bratton's efforts to improve the department's public relations sidestep calls for substantive change. These issues need to be addressed first and foremost by the council–not unleashing more cops into communities of color. On the same weekend the police shot three allegedly armed men, a 14-year old boy nearly died after being smashed through a window by a Bronx police officer.

"When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

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