About a week and a half after the NYPD seemed to have ended its “slowdown” in ticketing and meting out summonses, I was walking around in the Brownsville/Ocean Hill area of Brooklyn near the 73rd Precinct. This is Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhood, dogged by enough gun violence that last year the NYPD launched a paramilitary surveillance program here. It is called, without a hint of irony, “Omnipresence.” Yet according to police data, the number of criminal court summonses handed out in the 73rd Precinct dropped 78 percent between December 8 and January 11 compared to the same period the previous year; the week after two cops in Brooklyn were shot dead in their patrol car, it dropped 97 percent.
Three men in their twenties or thirties are huddled in front of a bodega a few blocks from the precinct. One of them, Shawn, tells me the police haven’t been around as much as they once were — which he says is a good thing.
“Usually they’re harassing people around the block — they would jump out at us and harass us, or if they found something on the floor they say it’s yours,” he told me, adding that he’s been ticketed or arrested “maybe 20” times since moving to the neighborhood a decade ago.
Others I spoke with seemed not to have noticed any difference in police presence.
“People here are scared of the police,” one 16-year-old, Chris, told me near the Marcus Garvey Houses, as he and his friend Zay walked home from school. “They wait for the kids to get out of school, they watch us.” But despite their fear, and even though Chris had once been forced to lay on the floor in front of his friends while a cop conducted a fruitless search of his body, they agreed that police presence in their neighborhood was necessary.
“They should be doing their job in a way that’s agreeable to pedestrians, because some of the things they do, it makes us go against them,” Zay said. Slacking off on the job, the boys maintained, wasn’t the solution — an opinion with which others in the neighborhood strongly agreed.
“Honestly, it’s retarded they stopped doing their job,” David, a construction worker, told me a few blocks away. “I hope cops do what they gotta do because people need to make the police feel safe. We need the police.”
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To some activists, it can seem paradoxical that those bearing the brunt of police intrusion chastised cops for the slowdown, but it really isn’t. The police, for better or worse, are who people think to call when their lives are endangered. Radicals advocate alternatives to policing that include building neighborhood support networks to handle problems without cops, but while stronger communities could theoretically make police obsolete, in reality communal bonds are not yet strong enough that a teenager in Brownsville could imagine anything other than an armed officer coming to his rescue in a time of need.
When somebody in an over-policed area says, “We need the police,” what they are really saying is, “We need the security to carry on normally with our lives.” They don’t need the humiliating stop-and-frisks or the arbitrary harassment. Yet these actions stem from the police’s historic role as enforcers of unequal, racist economic regimes, beginning with their first incarnation as slave patrols and constables protecting colonies from Indian raids, threading through the crackdown at the bridge in Selma, all the way up to the municipalities in St. Louis County whose operations are financed by traffic fines levied on poor blacks (the relationship is often an extractive one, too).
In New York, the current over-policing of low-income communities of color stems from a campaign to reclaim urban spaces for the middle and upper class. NYPD Commissioner William Bratton codified this approach during his first go-around at the job in 1994, dubbing it “broken windows policing,” a strategy inspired by an academic paper that argued crimes disproportionately committed by the poor — prostitution, living in a subway car, selling untaxed cigarettes, drinking in public, making graffiti — should merit the most vigilance from police.
This strategic focus on the poor gave police cover to increasingly stop and frisk people in neighborhoods like Brownsville, at least until it was exposed in the media. At the same time, “broken windows” policing also helped assuage developers’ perceptions of crime in neighborhoods that eventually gentrified (Bratton is fond of citing Williamsburg as evidence of “broken windows’” success). By aggressively controlling the behavior of poor and politically weak people and by helping clear space for developers to build and wealthier new citizens (with more tax revenue) to move in, the NYPD has done what the police have always been designed to do: enforce the will of the rich by suppressing poor dark people.
This basic function is obvious at flash points in New Brunswick, Canada, where Mi’kmaq activists opposing fracking have endured volleys of rubber bullets from the police, or Guatemala, where protesting farmers have faced off with security forces over mining projects by transnational corporations. But when this function unfolds over the course of many decades, within a cultural context that explains policing as simple crime-fighting, it can be difficult to discern. The teenagers with whom I spoke in Brownsville were confused about why the police would pursue people like them, “walking down the street looking regular,” instead of actual criminals. But it actually makes perfect sense if you know what the police have historically been all about.
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At the beginning of 2014, activists and scholars demanding an end to “broken windows” policing felt largely ignored by the mainstream — which had been the norm for many years. That changed after Eric Garner was choked to death by an NYPD officer for a quality-of-life crime, prompting debates in the media about the merit of “broken windows” policing. And since the end of the NYPD’s slowdown, which inadvertently put into practice everything the critics of “broken windows” were advocating, they have tried to leverage the data for their cause.
“This is an emperor has no clothes moment for the NYPD, because it has exposed the myth that ‘broken windows’ is an effective form of policing,” says Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project. “Neither chaos or hordes of predators descended upon the city [during the slowdown]. In fact, there was a significant reduction of crime in the city.”
The retort, voiced not just by Bratton but even cynical opponents of “broken windows” policing, is that the time frame of the slowdown was not enough to prove the strategy’s invalidity. That’s no matter, say residents of
“If you were to extend [the slowdown] for a month in the summertime it would be the same,” contended Nadia Stevens, a resident of Flatbush, at a January 15 speakout in front of the police union headquarters in the Financial District. “They’re trying to perpetuate fear and tell people to be afraid of black or Latino men, as if saying, ‘You never know what they’ll do if we unleash them.’ Everybody was more relaxed when police gave less tickets.”
This enthusiasm for the NYPD’s intransigence also marks the difference between mainstream liberals’ reaction to the slowdown and their left flank. While Al Sharpton and the New York Times editorial board chastised police for “not doing their job,” Josmar Trujillo of New Yorkers Against Bratton encouraged it.
“We’re here to say we want a permanency to the slowdown,” he said at the speakout. “We understand that ‘broken windows’ is something that is numbers-based and affects us in a way that policy makers have refused to talk about for years.”
Those numbers — the oft-maligned ticketing and arrest quotas that retired officers and whistleblowers have reported to the media but that the NYPD officially denies — are the performance measures that compel officers in Brownsville to stop Shawn and David without probable cause. They’re also why many cops, including those from the neighborhood they patrol, feel compelled to make bogus stops even if they do not want to (and many do not). When Bratton decried “the numbers” as not “normal” during the slowdown, he revealed how critical the tactic of low-level ticketing — disproportionately concentrated in neighborhoods like Brownsville — was to the NYPD.
And it is this subtle admission, not the continued low crime rates, that was the slowdown’s greatest revelation. Corralling and controlling poor, people-of-color communities is an integral part of the NYPD’s strategy, just as it is for most police forces in the world, past and present.
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It is politically smart for activists to use the results of the slowdown to press for relaxed policing generally and for reducing the bloat at the NYPD, with its 35,000 uniformed officers. But it should also serve as an opportunity to educate about the broader role of the police, made so plain by Bratton’s decrying of low numbers, in enforcing social inequality.
That may seem like an abstract demand, but without that fuller understanding, there’s no reason why reforms to “broken windows” wouldn’t result in another strategy operating under the same logic. It would also enable more robust conversations about the different ways the state maintains inequality, from police quotas to facilitating gentrification to underfunding schools in poor neighborhoods.
The last person I spoke with in Brownsville, a man named Lewis, asked simply: “If the police didn’t need to make the stops in the first place, why was they doing it?” The answer has revolutionary potential.