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The True Crime Issue

Why People of Color in New York City Still Don't Trust the Cops

Broken Windows policing targets racial minorities.
September 10, 2014, 5:00am
Eric Garner

On July 17, New York City police officers surrounded Eric Garner, an overweight, asthmatic black man, near his home on Staten Island. According to Garner's neighborhood pal Ramsey Orta, the cops were hassling Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, because they thought he was involved in a street scuffle. The police's version of the incident is that they approached Garner for selling individual cigarettes—"loosies"—which is illegal because the government doesn't collect taxes on those sales.


As captured on video by Orta, Garner complained about routine NYPD harassment and was subsequently placed in a choke hold by a plainclothes officer named Daniel Pantaleo. With his head being smashed against the ground and the cops holding him down, Garner cried out, "I can't breathe!" at least nine times—you can watch the video on YouTube yourself and count—to no avail. He was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later, and the video quickly went viral. It bears a horrifying resemblance to the climactic scene of Radio Raheem getting murdered by the NYPD in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing—Lee even created his own mash-up of the two scenes after Garner's death.

Almost immediately, cries rang out that Garner was a casualty of "broken windows" policing. That's the theory that says going after minor quality-of-life offenses like graffiti, subway panhandling, and illegal cigarette sales helps discourage serious crimes like rape and murder. It's the brainchild of criminologist George Kelling, who co-authored a 1982 Atlantic article that remains a sort of manual for modern policing in America. Broken windows was popularized by William Bratton, the NYPD commissioner in the 90s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani who has taken up his old post under the new mayor, Bill de Blasio. The mythology holds that it was the chief factor in the city's incredible turnaround since the high-crime 70s and 80s—though many criminologists disagree.


While the police obviously would prefer to have avoided the accidental killing, Garner's arrest was the result of a deliberate strategy—the New York Daily News reported on August 7 that NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks III called for a crackdown on loosie sales in Staten Island in early July, days before Garner's death. When the cops started hassling him, they were just following orders.

The worst part about all of this is that the NYPD was supposed to be getting better at reaching out to minority communities. De Blasio campaigned against the previous police commissioner, Ray Kelly, and his department's notorious practice of stopping and frisking young black and Hispanic men in hopes of deterring gun violence—a policy that had actually been getting scaled back long before the new mayor took the helm in January. Nevertheless, disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics continue to be cuffed for low-level marijuana offenses, and the cops have drawn ire for arresting teens for break dancing for spare change on subway cars.

"Kelly and Bratton are pretty much the same," David Dinkins, who became the city's first black mayor after being elected in 1989, told me. "And that's where it is, really—the police commissioner."

Broken windows is back—Kelling is even serving as a consultant for the department—and targeting the same people as before: young, poor minorities.

"There is no getting around the fact that a significant portion of the minority populations in New York City—blacks and Latinos—feel they are being inappropriately targeted by the NYPD," Bratton conceded to me in an interview conducted when he was still in the private sector last year. But he defended the department's traditional focus on people of color, whom local cops often point to as the source of most violent crime.

Kelling backs him up. "If anyone thinks that Bratton is now interested in criminalizing youths or African Americans, they're just dead wrong," he told me. "At one particular time, the story was that the Irish were committing a large number of crimes. Another generation, we had the Italians committing a large number of crimes… Right now, we have a terrible problem of African Americans killing each other and some Hispanics killing each other. If you want to stop the killing, that means you have to deal with that population, and that is not inappropriate racial profiling."

The problem is how the police have chosen to "deal with that population." The Garner killing has been followed by a deluge of photos and videos, mostly obtained by the Daily News, that show cops committing spectacular acts of malice against minorities: dragging a naked black woman out of her apartment and leaving her exposed in the hallway, for instance, or placing a pregnant black woman in a choke hold for barbecuing on her sidewalk. Bratton conceded after Garner's death that the cops should be better trained in restraining subjects. That might be helpful, but it wouldn't address the core problem.

"This is the kind of thing countries on a watch list do to their citizens. They sweep through a neighborhood and lock people up for junk," said Eugene O'Donnell, a veteran New York City cop and prosecutor who served on de Blasio's public-safety transition committee and is now working alongside Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. "The scandal is why this arrest was being made, and who the policymakers are that allowed this to happen."

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