How New York City is slowly rethinking broken windows policing

When the “broken windows” policing style was popularized in the ’90s, New York City was exhibit A for the theory’s backers. By cracking down on so-called “quality of life” crimes like graffiti or subway turnstile jumpers, city leaders argued, they could avoid spikes in other more serious criminal activity.

It’s a philosophy that has defined policing here for the last quarter century, and its influence can be seen in the huge numbers of men of color who were stopped and frisked by New York officers a few years ago. It has led to thousands of arrests of mostly men of color for low-level crimes that made it hard for them to get jobs or housing. And the policy’s supposed effect on crime rates has not been proven.

Now, New York City is slowly rethinking the use of broken windows-style policing. Last week, the City Council introduced a set of reforms that would replace criminal summons with civil penalties for some low-level crimes like public urination and staying in parks after dark. If the measures pass as expected, many violators will pay small fines or do community service instead of getting a criminal rap sheet.

Meanwhile, the city has seen a precipitous decline in what officials call “negative interactions” with community members—a stop, summons, or arrest. Those interactions, which form the bread and butter of broken windows, declined by more than one million in 2015, the department says. The number of annual stops-and-frisks also declined from a peak of 685,000 stops in 2011 to just over 18,000 in the first three quarters of 2015, and arrests for marijuana possession are also way down.

It’s too soon to write an obituary for broken windows, and some activists say the current reforms don’t go anywhere near far enough. But New York is clearly taking the first steps toward changing its police strategy.

Even Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who led the NYPD during the broken windows heydey of the ’90s and returned to run the department in 2014, has signaled a willingness to moderate his tactics.

“What we have to do in policing is find the right balance,” he said in a talk at the American Justice Summit on Friday. “Like a doctor treating a parent, give the patient too much chemo, you’re going to kill him. Similarly, if you give the community too much enforcement, you’re going to kill them, literally.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 19:  New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton participates in a symposium hosted by the Manhattan Institute on the current quality of life in the New York on November 19, 2015 in New York City. Bratton took questions afterwards regarding the terrorist attacks in Paris, the potential risks of terrorist attacks in New York, his views on the Syrian refugee crisis and his relationship with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)Getty Images

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

The City Council measures, which have the support of Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio, represent an attempt to find that balance. Introduced last week, they are eight bills—collectively known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act—which rethink how the city treats minor infractions that include drinking alcohol in public, violating park rules, littering, and being too noisy.

Now, someone who is caught peeing on the sidewalk, for example, would receive a criminal summons and a misdemeanor on their permanent rap sheet. Under the council’s reforms, the person caught peeing would have their ID run by an officer to check for outstanding warrants and then have to pay a civil fine. They’d get no criminal record, and their case wouldn’t have to go through the overburdened criminal court system.

Officers will still have discretion to give repeat violators criminal penalties under a set of guidelines that is being worked out by the police department and the council.

“In essence it’s about the punishment fitting the crime,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a progressive who has spearheaded the measures, told me in a phone interview. “You’re still being held accountable, but there’s a difference here in terms of balance.”

She said that she didn’t see the reforms as bringing an end to broken windows, but “this is a real change in direction,” especially for the “communities of color that are most impacted by these ineffective policies.”

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 27:  Opponents of the New York Police Department?s controversial "stop-and-frisk" policy march on January 27, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The NYPD says the stops assist crime prevention while opponents say they involve racial profiling and civil rights abuses. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, during the first nine months of 2011 514,461 city residents were stopped by the NYPD. 451,469 were innocent (88 percent), while 54 percent were black, 31 percent Latino and 9 percent white.   (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)Getty Images

Protesters march in the Bronx against the NYPD's stop and frisk policy.

The reforms have been hailed by groups like The New York Times editorial board and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which lauded the measures as “a significant step forward in reducing the over-criminalization of minor infractions.”

But other activists, like Robert Gangi, the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, say the City Council proposals don’t go far enough.

“These proposals don’t really address the problem—that there is a police response that is a racially biased response to these activities in terms of who gets stopped and arrested,” Gagni said. A black teen is more likely to get arrested drinking a beer on his stoop in Harlem than a white couple drinking a bottle of wine in Central Park, he argued.

Stops may be down, but they still disproportionately target people of color. Arrests for marijuana possession have fallen from a peak of 50,000 in 2011 to about 15,000 in 2015. However, 89% of those arrested in the first quarter of 2015 were black or hispanic.

The proposed reforms show that city leaders can’t think outside the box, said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who has studied policing in New York. Instead of just replacing one punishment with another, he argued, they should address root causes.

For example, Vitale asked, “Why not have more programming in the parks after dark rather than criminalizing people for being in the parks?” Or take public urination. New York has a dearth of public restrooms compared to most cities around the world. Instead of spending more to hire police officers to catch the public pissers, maybe the city should just build some more public toilets.

Overall, Vitale called the City Council reforms a “baby step” in the right direction. A civil fine is “less onerous than jail but it’s still a penalty and an abridgment of freedom,” Vitale said. “They cannot seem to give up the punitive mindset.”