It starts off with what seems like a simple crime, if you can even call these things "crimes" with a straight face. Riding a bike on the sidewalk. Jumping a turnstile to avoid paying a subway fare. Putting a sticker on a scaffold. Even jaywalking. The idea behind broken windows policing is to crack down on these small offenses—hand out summonses, or handcuff the criminals—and, by doing so, prevent the larger crimes. Fix the broken window in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood will know disorder is not tolerated.
Makes sense, right?
This theory of law enforcement has infiltrated police departments across the country. It is the heart of policing in America, and depending on who you talk to, broken windows has either led to a nationwide decline in crime or seriously skewed consequences.
But when you see broken windows actually applied in real life, it's even worse.
In a 24-page report entitled "That's How They Get You: New Yorkers' Encounters With 'Broken Windows' Policing," released by the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) on Thursday, detailed vignettes—117 in total—flesh out what police reform advocates have described as a failed system. It's a system that ensnares blacks and Latinos drastically more than whites, and, as PROP founder Bob Gangi describes it, "verges on becoming a black comedy."
These are arrests that you'd expect to find watching reruns of Reno 911!, not the streets of New York City.
Take, for example, the African-American man who was arrested because he used his unlimited MetroCard to swipe in himself and his wife together. Or the black woman who was ticketed for being in a Brooklyn park past dusk, even though it was 8:49 PM and the park closes at nine (the cop allegedly stalled her for 11 minutes). Even more bizarre is the African-American man, who, after returning to his childhood home at a project housing unit in the Bronx, was arrested for trespassing in front of his own relatives. He even had the address of the building tattooed onto his forearm, but that didn't matter—he spent the night in jail.
Throughout my reporting on policing practices and criminal justice, I've come across subjects of broken windows policing all too often. During the notorious NYPD slowdown, when broken windows was essentially put on hold for a couple weeks, I met individuals who were accustomed to getting summonses for loitering and selling loose cigarettes—the offenses Eric Garner's death is now synonymous with. Along with subway panhandlers and homeless men, these folks enjoyed the vacation from aggressive policing.
When I spent 16 hours in Manhattan Criminal Court, I met kids who were stuck in arraignment chambers underground for hours on end because they were stopped, frisked, and found with a small amount of weed on them. All of that time and effort, just to end up paying a $75 ticket.
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Of course, race is the most blatant thread that ties these stories together. A broad majority of the subjects I've spoken with, and most of those in the PROP report, were either African American or Latino. During the slowdown, a black writer for the New Republicwondered, "Maybe this is a small taste of what it feels like to be white." As one reporter pointed out to me in Manhattan Criminal Court, "Did you know you can get arrested for being black now?"
In a number of the cases, the charges were immediately dismissed later in court, leaving the accused with just a few hours of jail time. But according to the PROP report, others were not as lucky. There are undocumented workers who were deported from the country because of an open container charge, and others who missed work or lost money as a result. Loss of child custody, physical abuse, parole—this is brutal stuff.
"We had one young Latina girl who started to cry when describing her arrest," Gangi, the author of the report, told me. "It shows how upset they are—how unjust they see this as." He added that, on days of petitioning, PROP volunteers would ask individuals why they were given a summonses, and they responded with one word: "Latino."
In New York, it would appear as if broken windows is here to stay. The police commissioner, William J. Bratton, was one of its Founding Fathers, and the mayor, Bill de Blasio, has made it clear that he believes it's the best method for fighting crime. For his support, the mayor has earned criticism from his progressive allies, particularly City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
In recent weeks, though, the needle has begun to shift a bit.
Facing demands for decriminalization from the City Council, led by Mark-Viverito, Bratton seems open to refining his longtime theory, and has already agreed to a softer stance on pot. Although he still staunchly defends low-level arrests, Bratton has hinted at a compromise: Rather than lessening the punishment for, say, public urination or riding a bike on the sidewalk, a police officer could issue a written warning to an individual committing that kind of offense, if it's only their first one. (Unfortunately, many New Yorkers have already been caught up in this mess, which is how they end up in probationary purgatory.)
"None of this means we can't explore alternatives to misdemeanor arrests," Bratton said recently, after connecting his theory to New York's precipitous crime drop in recent decades. "We can and we are doing so. We can be more considered and more considerate. We can be more respectful and more respected—and we will be."
Still, Mark-Viverito has stressed the need for summons reforms, and, as of now, the Commissioner and the Council remain in the thick of negotiation. However, by the looks of it, reforming broken windows is not only worth it to end these countless stories of senseless arrests, but also, to mend a serious credibility gap between the cops and thousands of New Yorkers.
While interviewing people, Gangi said the reactions his group received "ranged from bemused to really angry"; some individuals shrugged off their offenses as trivial commonalities, while others remained hopeless that policing would ever change, "They had no belief that cops could serve a benign or useful purpose," he told me.
"We talked to a group of high school kids, all black and Latino, and each one of them had a story," Gangi continued. "Either it was a summons for them, or a friend of theirs. They are keenly aware that this is a reality of their everyday life. A common, universal experience."
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