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Broken Narrative

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Broken Narrative

Mayor de Blasio’s public-relations campaign on policing can’t hide the deterioration of street life. November 6, 2017
New York
Politics and law
Public safety

The New York Times, along with anti-cop activists and the academic Left, opposes public-order enforcement as racially oppressive. With New York mayor Bill de Blasio likely to win a second term tomorrow, it now appears that his administration is following suit. There’s only one problem, as a Times article today unwittingly reveals: cutting back on such enforcement, also known as Broken Windows policing, violates the wishes of the very minority residents whom the Times purports to champion.

Two Times reporters travelled to majority-minority areas of the city to observe the New York Police Department’s new philosophy in action. A detective in Washington Heights, a heavily Dominican neighborhood of Manhattan, is letting some crimes go unpunished as a way to gain trust, report J. David Goodman and Al Baker. The detective had recently let a marijuana dealer go. “He’s up there selling weed and stuff, a bunch of small stuff,” the detective said. “And we’re worried about violent stuff.” Later, the dealer helped with some information on gangs, thus allegedly vindicating the no-enforcement policy.

This distinction between ignorable criminal “small stuff” and attention-worthy “violent stuff” is precisely what the Broken Windows philosophy rejects. Until recently, the NYPD firmly rejected that distinction as well.  A community characterized by street disorder is a magnet for violent street predation, since criminals rightly perceive that social controls there have broken down. Moreover, violent criminals do not scrupulously obey public-order laws; enforcing those misdemeanor laws gets them off the streets.

But even if there were no connection between the “small stuff” and the “violent stuff,” maintaining public order in high-crime communities is a moral imperative, because that is what the law-abiding residents there demand. (Enforcement need not always entail arrest; officers have the discretion to issue a warning instead.) The Times reporters attended a community meeting in the North Bronx, but it didn’t go according to the expected political narrative. A man complained about drug use on a playground. A woman reported drug dealing at a Chinese business: “they put their drugs right there in the Chinese place. I’m not trying to get my name involved,” she said.

Note: it is not just drug dealing that the community perceives as a scourge but also drug use—exactly what Times editors, readers, and other right-thinking people believe should be ignored or decriminalized. At a police-community meeting in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, officers had to explain why they could not easily stop “people from smoking marijuana in privately owned buildings,” in the Times’ words.  Someone had obviously made the same complaint that I have heard over and over at such gatherings: “I smell weed in my hallway, why can’t you do something about it?”

Black support for drug enforcement and other quality-of-life concerns has a long (and suppressed) history. In the 1950s, working- and middle-class blacks viewed drug addiction as a crime problem rather than as a public-health concern, writes Michael Javen Fortner in his groundbreaking book, Black Silent Majority. While the New York Times talked about the “victims” of the drug scourge, the Amsterdam News portrayed drug users themselves as the scourge. In 1959, Harlem’s New York Age called for “no leniency for the criminals, the recidivists, the junkies, dope pushers, muggers, prostitutes, or pimps. Clear out this scum—and put them away as long as the law will allow,” Fortner reports [emphasis added].

As the Times today unintentionally shows, the public still hasn’t gotten the memo about racially oppressive public-order enforcement. Other media outlets that have sent reporters to police-community meetings in high-crime areas have also been forced against their inclinations to reach the same conclusion.

But the NYPD seems determined to roll back decades of its core policing philosophy. During the Times’s ride-along, two detectives in Upper Manhattan observed three men, including a likely drug dealer, cooking and shooting up heroin in an otherwise empty skateboard park. In another era, the encounter might have resulted in an arrest or formal police stop, reports the Times. Now, however, the men are allowed to walk quickly away, though the detectives call two back to inform them about addiction services. (The chance that the two will avail themselves of such services is close to zero.) Too bad the Times didn’t send its reporters back to the area to interview local residents, who would doubtless have expressed their reluctance to use and enjoy a park infested by drug addicts shooting dope.

Gentrification has kept New York’s two-decades-long crime drop in place. But if the NYPD continues to allow public disorder to fester, Bill de Blasio will earn the title that every New York mayor since the visionary Rudolph Giuliani dreads: the mayor who let crime rise on his watch.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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