The NYPD Might Inadvertently Prove 'Broken Windows' Theory Is A Sham

NYPD vandalism broken windowsReutersA New York City police officer dusts a vandalised telephone cable for fingerprints on a service pole in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn.

The NYPD’s arrests for minor offenses like public drinking and urination have dropped by a whopping 94% since two cops were shot in their car earlier this month, according to data obtained by the New York Post

Some cops have cut back on arrests for petty offenses because they fear for their safety while others want to get back at Mayor Bill de Blasio for his perceived lack of support amid growing tensions after the chokehold death of Eric Garner, the Post reports. 

For its part, The New York Times accused the city’s cops of “walking off the job” and wants them to get back to work immediately.

If the police don’t resume arresting people for minor crimes, however, they could end up testing whether the city’s aggressive “broken windows theory” of policing actually works.

Broken windows, from the work of two criminologists, George Kelling and James Wilson, suggests that minor disorder, like vandalism, acts as a gateway to more serious crime. Police can thus cut down on violent crime by focusing on smaller offenses, often referred to as “quality of life” crimes, the theory goes.

Broken windows took hold in the early ’90s under the excited leadership of former mayor Rudy Giuliani. Then, the murder rate had peaked in the city. But by the end of the decade, violent crime had dropped 56%.

Many credit Giuliani and broken windows for the city’s astounding turnaround. Several academic studies, however, have questioned and even criticised the policy’s effectiveness.

When University of Chicago professors Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig revisited broken windows, they reported criminologists knew very little about the theory’s effectiveness. Their paper found no evidence outside of Kelling’s work to support the notion that cracking down on minor offenses leads to a decrease in more serious crime.

Much of the new research claiming to debunk broken windows has also found that targeting minor crimes harms poor people and minorities. For example, a later paper, again by Harcourt and Ludwig, found that the policy, albeit indirectly, led to a disproportionate number of drug arrests for blacks, the New Republic reported. 

Bill Bratton de BlasioAPNew York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton (foreground) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (background)

Ironically, de Blasio — the candidate who promised to end stop-and-frisk — has openly supported broken windows since taking office. He even picked Bill Bratton, whom Giuliani originally hired as NYPD commissioner in 1994, to assume the role once again. 

“Because of the broken-windows approach, we are the safest we’ve ever been. I lived through the 1980s in this city and the early ’90s, and I don’t ever want to go back there,” de Blasio said, according to the New York Daily News.

In light of the death of Garner, Bratton published a sprawling, 4,500 word defence of broken windows for the Winter 2015 issue of City Journal. “The NYPD’s critics object, in particular, to the department’s long-standing practice of maintaining order in public spaces,” he writes.

Ultimately though, fewer arrests means fewer people behind bars, which effectively means fewer minorities and poor are incarcerated, 
as The Atlantic noted. That could end up improving race relations in New York City, which sparked the battle between de Blasio and the police force originally. 

If future data shows cutting down on arrests for minor offenses, that could unfairly target minorities, doesn’t increase crime, Bratton and de Blasio might want to re-evaluate their reliance on broken windows. 

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