New York mayor Bill de Blasio is facing the most momentous decision of his still-new mayoralty: whether to take his public safety cues from the New York Times editorial board and sundry anti-cop activists, or from his police commissioner, William Bratton. Pressure has mounted on de Blasio from his base over the last week to repudiate the strategy known as broken-windows policing. That pressure follows the death of a man who resisted arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes, an arrest (minus the death) that exemplifies broken-windows or public-order enforcement. De Blasio has been on vacation since last Sunday, but now that he is back in City Hall, his handling of the growing controversy over Eric Garner’s death will reveal what the city will be like over the next four years.
The anti-cop forces have shifted the focus of attention from the tactics used to subdue Garner after he resisted arrest—which is where attention should stay—to the very enforcement of misdemeanor laws themselves, such as the one against illegal cigarette sales. The New York Times’s lead editorial on Saturday, “Broken Windows, Broken Lives,” exemplifies this opportunistic turn against quality-of-life enforcement: “How terrible it would be if Eric Garner died for a theory, for the idea that aggressive police enforcement against minor offenders . . . is the way to a safer, more orderly city.” The Times suggested that the total number of arrests last year—394,539—was too high, without enlightening us as to what a proper number would be. (Connoisseurs of the “stop, question, and frisk” debates will recognize this tactic.) Taking up its favorite racial theme, the Times claimed that broken-windows policing has “pointlessly burdened” young black and Hispanic males with criminal records. The link between broken-windows policing and greater safety is only “hypothetical,” the editorial announced, ignoring evidence to the contrary. The paper ended with a condescending slight toward Bratton and an ultimatum for de Blasio: “Mr. Bratton should not be a once-innovative general fighting the last war. Mr. de Blasio was elected on a promise of being a transformative mayor who would recognize the times we live in and respect the communities whose residents fear the police. Now is the time to show it.” (Those “communities,” by the way, whom the Times claims “fear the police,” are filled with law-abiding residents who only feel safe when the police are around.)
A host of local politicians are also arguing that broken-windows policing is no longer necessary and is racially unjust. These are many of the same politicians who a month ago were calling for 1,000 more cops to quell this year’s spike in gun violence. In the first six months of 2014, 611 people were shot (more than three a day), a 10 percent increase over last year. This shooting rise, exclusively in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, drew incessant media coverage. But now the politicians from those high-crime areas have decided that the city is more than safe enough. “There is no logic to the explosion of arrest activity,” Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Congressman representing violence-prone Brownsville and East New York, complained to the New York Times. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, whose fabricated calumny of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly featured prominently in the 2013 court decision overturning New York’s stop-and-frisk policies, questioned “whether we still need these arrests . . . now that the [broken] windows are no longer broken.” Tell that to the families of the two children shot during the first weekend of July, part of a weekend bloodbath that included four dead and more than 20 wounded. Proactive policing, whether public-order enforcement or pedestrian stops, is integral to quelling such violence, by intervening in lawless behavior early on and sending a message in communities where social controls have broken down that the police are still in charge.
Bratton has recently stressed that police attention to public disorder does not necessarily require an arrest. He is right to do so. Officers can use other means to enforce lawful behavior, whether pouring out an open bottle of whiskey or telling a trespasser or aggressive panhandler to move on. (Garner, however, was a habitual offender, and so may have exhausted his credit with the local Staten Island officers.) But encouraging officers to use their discretion in how to enforce the law is a far cry from discrediting law enforcement entirely. It is hard enough to persuade cops that public-order maintenance matters; they do not need encouragement from the advocates to go back to purely reactive policing.
Despite having run a demagogic campaign against the New York Police Department, De Blasio’s choice of Bratton to lead the department showed that he understood that his mayoralty would be judged above all on his ability to maintain New York’s record-breaking crime drop. He wisely selected the most respected policing innovator in the world to preserve New York’s status as America’s safest big city. It is now incumbent upon de Blasio to stand by Bratton’s policy choices. Ironically, Bratton started his second tour of duty in New York promising to increase quality-of-life enforcement in the subways, and he had the backing of de Blasio in doing so. Immediately after Garner’s tragic death, de Blasio again signaled his support for misdemeanor enforcement, saying that the police should in fact enforce laws against the sale of single untaxed cigarettes, if “there’s a community concern.” But the recent escalation in protest activity will only grow in the weeks and months to come. De Blasio must reassure Bratton and the public that he respects Bratton’s expertise and will back him unequivocally in his policing strategies. If he cannot do so and instead places racial politics above the public good, including the good of minority neighborhoods, he does not deserve the commissioner that he chose and may ultimately have to find himself another one.