‘Broken Windows’ and the New York Police

Eric Thayer/Reuters
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a news conference about the police department’s use of stop-and-frisk practices, Brownsville, Brooklyn, January 2014

The death of Eric Garner at the hands of his arresting officers in New York on July 17 has provoked a public debate about the so-called broken windows style of policing that has been, in various incarnations, the New York Police Department’s guiding tactic since 1994. The phrase “broken windows” is a metaphor that neatly illustrates the policy, as first put forth by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 essay of that name in The Atlantic. If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, the rest of the windows will soon be broken as well, because the unrepaired window signals that no one cares. This explains why the police should make arrests for panhandling, public drunkenness, loitering, and other minor infractions that have long been considered unavoidable by-products of urban street life: if allowed to flourish, they foster an atmosphere of disorder that causes law-abiding citizens to feel fearful and wary, as if the streets of their neighborhood have been invaded and are not theirs.

Believing that this general atmosphere of disorder reduces their chances of being caught, the theory goes, violent criminals feel emboldened. Since disreputable minor offenders create this atmosphere in which violent crimes are more likely to be committed, they should be swept off the streets as if they were violent criminals themselves, and physically roughed up, if necessary, even if they may not be breaking the law.

Had it not gone awry, the Eric Garner case would have been a typical example of the policy at work. His offense, by all accounts, was that of selling loose cigarettes in a park near the ferry on Staten Island, and then verbally protesting policemen’s attempts to arrest him. Three hundred and fifty pounds, asthmatic, forty-three years old, and black, Garner was put into a chokehold and died, according to the New York medical examiner, “of compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner was a frequent presence in the park and there is no doubt that the arresting officers from the 120th Precinct knew that he wasn’t a violent threat. The medical examiner has ruled his death a homicide and a grand jury has begun hearing evidence to decide whether criminal charges should be brought against the policeman who employed the chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD but continues to be used by some officers when subduing suspects.1

The debate about the broken windows method of policing unavoidably turns around the question of racial injustice. By an overwhelming majority, New Yorkers who are arrested for low-level infractions—“rule-breaking” may be a better term—are young black and Hispanic men in poor neighborhoods. Often these arrests have been for possessing…

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