Buskers on the New York City subway. Photo via Flickr user Gary H. Spielvogel
If you live in a large American city, chances are you've had an encounter with a panhandler on public transit. Perhaps the stranger who asked for money did so after serenading you with beautiful music, in which case you were happy to pitch in. Or maybe the beggar was hostile or clearly mentally ill, which scared you off from giving any cash. But even if this sort of interaction has the potential to be uncomfortable, does it really make sense for police to concentrate their resources on what is ultimately a nuisance?
According to Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, the answer is yes, it makes perfect sense. Since Bratton took the helm in January, arrests of panhandlers and peddlers on the city subway system have more than tripled, and police are now claiming that subway crime—which mostly means the seizure of credit cards and gadgets like cell phones without force, with some turnstile jumping thrown in for good measure—went down by about 7 percent as a result.
A few weeks ago, the commissioner embarked on a late-night tour of the subway with George Kelling, the criminologist who coined the "Broken Windows" theory that gained nationwide influence after Bratton made a show of embracing it during his previous stint as city police commissioner in the mid 1990s. It essentially holds that sweating the small stuff—subway panhandlers, the "squeegee men" who wash car windows with dirty newspapers and ask for money—helps prevent more serious offenses, including theft and even murder. The theory’s alleged genius is the foundation of the myth of Rudy Giuliani, who appointed Bratton after he was first elected two decades ago and (so the legend goes) promptly rescued New York from its own depravity.
The reality, of course, is a bit more complicated than that.
"The social science research has consistently shown, since the 1990s, that minor disorder does not cause serious crime and that aggressive misdemeanor arrest policies do not reduce it," argued University of Chicago criminologist Bernard Harcourt, who, along with his colleague Jens Ludwig (and plenty of other experts), has pushed back on the conventional explanation for the city's incredible transformation from a bankrupt hellhole in the 70s to the gentrified low-crime wonderland it is today.
But if it wasn't Giuliani and Bratton's embrace of Broken Windows theory, how else can we account for the New York miracle?
“Crime went down everywhere in the 90s," said John Roman, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, referring to a sharp dive in violence nationwide during the Clinton administration. “It went down in Dallas and San Diego, as well as cities like New York when they increased their police force by 30,000.” So a booming economy and an infusion of federal cash that paid for more cops (the relevant law passed in 1994, which just so happens to be the year Giuliani and Bratton first came to power) brought the the urban decay of the Reagan era to an end (the waning of the crack epidemic didn't hurt either) and introduced the expectation for cleanish streets and basically uninhibited subway rides.
And despite the tired trope of unsuspecting (usually female) citizens being confronted by scary thugs on dark, lonely subway platforms, underground crime has been perennially overhyped.
"Crime in the subways was never significant, but it always got outsize attention," explained Eugene O'Donnell, a veteran Brooklyn cop and prosecutor who advised de Blasio during the campaign on police issues.
So stopping rapes, murders, and other serious offenses is not what busting up the mariachi bands, churro dealers, and breakdancing "Ladies and gentlemen, it's showtime!" kids is about. Instead, Bratton—whose first local gig was as chief of the transit cops—is sending a signal to the (white) Wall Street and business types allegedly terrified of de Blasio's left-wing views that the city's seedy elements will be kept under wraps and that this is still their town. And with stop-and-frisk rates plummeting since last year, the cops need to do something to rack up arrests and pad those stats.
"What's happening is that the definition of Broken Windows or quality-of-life policing simply bends to fit the contours of whatever the cops are doing," said Franklin E. Zimring, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the author of The City That Became Safe.
That Bratton is using the subway system—his old stomping ground—to leave his mark early on makes sense as "the subway was his greatest triumph," according to O'Donnell, the former prosecutor and cop. "That's where he made his name."
The problem is that the people being swept up in these underground raids are likely to be poor and brown, whereas the one area of the city that saw a noticeable spike in crime in 2013—public parks—gets no special attention. And cities like Washington, DC, which under Chief Cathy Lanier has gone in the opposite direction by having officers go into troubled neighborhoods and hand out business cards as part of a program of community engagement, are seeing their own impressive drops in violent crime, raising doubts about just how essential the old-school Bratton approach is.
City Hall, for its part, insists Bratton is making a sharp break with the regime of his predecessor Ray Kelly despite the renewed emphasis on subway crime.
"That is different from the culture of quotas that was unmasked in the course of the Floyd trial and verified by officers who testified," one city official told me. "Commissioner Bratton, while also being a disciple of Kelling on this and one of the more successful implementers of [Broken Windows], has been very clear about his focus on community policing."
It is true that Bratton got high marks for community outreach when he was running the LAPD, though some of his divergence with Kelly these days seems driven more by personal rivalry than anything else.
And while it's awesome that de Blasio is determined to "end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color," as his son Dante promised in the TV spot that won him the election, it might be even better if he and his police commissioner ditched the archaic theory that inspired it, too.
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