A ‘collaborative model,’ not ‘broken windows’


8/14/2014, 5:45 p.m.

Last month, when the Police Reform Organizing Project released its report “Broken Windows Policing—A True Tale of Two Cities,” it stated it was a “work in progress.” That’s a meaningful caveat. But if the findings in this 29-page report are a harbinger, PROP has only scratched the surface of what may become an irreconcilable problem between the NYPD and communities of color.

From the opening statement of the report, PROP clarifies its mission with graphic examples of the “broken windows” policy, re-initiated by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and thereby approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Young Black and Brown men are charged with criminal trespass and locked up for standing in front of their own building. People in psychiatric crisis, clearly disoriented, are thrown to the ground, handcuffed and locked up. LGBTQ persons are called derogatory names, questioned rudely, or inappropriately touched,” PROP states.

It further notes that street vendors are harassed, fined and arrested for violating arbitrarily enforced minor rules, which is at the crux of the report and the broken windows theory. Moreover, sex workers are arrested for merely having condoms in their possession and, equally egregious, Muslims are unjustly placed under surveillance and the homeless are roughed up, their belongings destroyed.

This is the gist of the broken windows approach, with its emphasis on quality-of-life issues, promoting a plethora of minor arrests with an aim toward stemming presumed future major crimes.

Without going into the court dockets that clearly substantiate PROP’s conclusions, the report says that of the 747 total cases seen, 667, or 89 percent, of the defendants were people of color. Ninety-three percent of these defendants walked out of the courtroom. “Only 55 defendants, or 7 percent of the total number of defendants, were held in custody after their arraignments.”

Of the cases witnessed by PROP, no matter in which borough the proceedings occurred, most of the defendants were people of color, ranging between 90 and 100 percent.

To determine whether this disparity of arrests had changed since de Blasio and Bratton took control of the city, PROP obtained statistics from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. What was discovered during the first five months of the new administration the situation remained “remarkably similar.” For example, the total number of misdemeanor arrests for the city in 2013 was 97,243. In 2014, the total was 97,487. But let the report speak for itself.

“Percentage of persons charged with misdemeanors who are people of color: 86.8 percent in 2013; 86 percent in 2014; percentage of persons charged with felonies who are Black people: 50.5 percent in 2013; 50.6 percent in 2014. These and other relevant data demonstrate that the NYPD’s arrest practices, which are marked by a stark racial disproportion, have not yet shown any signs of changing under the city’s new leadership,” it states.

Pages of narrative in the report give the statistics a human face. “Undercover drug officers gave two different people $20 to inform them of drug dealers in their neighborhood. Both people pocketed the money and went home. The officers followed them home, knocked on their doors and arrested them on petit larceny charges.”

The recent tragic death of Eric Garner from an illegal chokehold administered by an NYPD officer, which was deemed a homicide by the medical examiner, underscores the report’s concern about the broken windows theory and the need for a “more collaborative model.”

At the beginning of the report, PROP states its intentions and the quest to “establish a Police Department that serves and protects all New Yorkers, especially the vulnerable people amongst us, and that works to create a more safe, fair and inclusive city for all its citizens.” We could not agree more strongly.

We agree, too, that this is a preliminary report, one in progress, but we are deeply disturbed by the portent it signals for community relations with the NYPD, particularly for our people of color.

This problem is by no means a local one. Broken windows has been part and parcel of the Bratton policy for many years, including during his tenure in Los Angeles. His fingerprints are apparent in places where he has no jurisdiction, where law enforcement officers’ exercise arrests based on minor offenses, sometimes fatally. We are reminded of the news from Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed young Black man was killed by the police for what amounted to jaywalking, one of the minor violations highlighted in PROP’s report.

In as much as this is a report in progress, it is very disturbing, and PROP should know that we support both its methods and conclusions, and we certainly look forward to reviewing the results in the future.