Anybody still wondering what New York City is going to look like post-Broken Windows policing? Just check out Gotham’s latest wide-screen drama—the Invasion of the Sidewalk Snatchers.
When Mayor Bill de Blasio, an enabler of the city’s metastasizing vagrancy crisis, summoned the press this weekend to watch him take the subway four stops in Brooklyn, his handlers and security detail made sure to roust any homeless people from the route to provide a sanitized backdrop for all the pictures. But even de Blasio is no longer oblivious to the ugly reality behind his Potemkin city, just this month pinpointing a root cause: he says that many people panhandle “purely out of choice—this is a fact—somehow they think it’s fun or they think it’s a way to make easy money, and I resent that.”
But he doesn’t resent it enough actually to do something about it. That’s a pity, for history teaches that aggressive vagrancy can be managed, if not eliminated, but that left unchecked it overpowers public spaces, encourages petty crime, and degrades the quality of municipal life. New York is fated to relearn this lesson as it moves to decriminalize seemingly “minor” offenses.
Disorder begets disorder, as New York discovered during the long run-up to the crime crises of the seventies and eighties—a period dominated by out-of-control vagrancy. Yet chaotic streets need not be suffered in silence. While disorder reflects a loss of self-respect in the halls of government, order can be restored provided elected leaders have the will to act.
The real root cause of the problem is the refusal of city leaders to recognize that aggressive vagrancy and related disorder even exists—let alone that such offenses merit police attention. And so the bums slowly take over. These include the mildly addled and the severely addicted; those so dysfunctional as to be a danger to themselves and to others; and, of course, de Blasio’s ubiquitous easy-money seekers—youngsters sitting on strips of cardboard with their tattoos and pet dogs.
Mayors Koch and Dinkins tolerated this sort of thing, and it flourished; Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg did not, and while they never eliminated it, they did push it to the margins, which set the stage for the dramatic rejuvenation of New York City. The process wasn’t easy or cheap— expensive programs had to be established—and it required a significant attitude adjustment for the NYPD.
“I came on in ‘87 when Koch was on his way out and Dinkins was on the horizon,” says a now-retired NYPD veteran. “Broken Windows-type of policing was not encouraged then primarily because the brass wanted to keep cops out in the street to deal with the felonious mayhem. When Giuliani swooped in [with] a plan, the word got out among those who set up shop on a subway vent to beg, that the cops would now move you and enforce the minor statutes of the penal law. So many just drifted away.”
The reclamation of New York City was under way. But the attitudes that animated the recovery were not to last. “During the Giuliani years, a precinct commander would be shown a photo of a homeless person blocking a sidewalk in his command. And his career could end right there, depending upon his response,” said the former cop, who still follows these issues.
“Today it is simply not a priority for the mayor and hence the policymakers in the NYPD,” he says. “So the brass doesn’t care, and the sidewalk lawyers with cell phone cams have made telling someone to move a perilous act. So you have blasé, inactive cops posing for selfies with tourists, and ‘homeless’ pouring in from outside of the city to take advantage of the vacuum in leadership.”
Official New York embraces this defining-down of deviancy as a necessary component of a new social order. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her colleagues have a bottomless pit of proposals meant to hamstring competent law enforcement; Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of New York’s Court of Appeals, wants to decriminalize street prostitution; and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance just announced what amounts to the decriminalization of scores of quality-of-life-oriented misdemeanor offenses. (Acting Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez promptly announced plans to follow suit, though neither prosecutor has bothered to consult the state legislature.)
De Blasio has at least talked a good game concerning quality-of-life crime. That may have been the price for keeping Bill Bratton, an architect of Broken Windows policing, in his cabinet for two-plus years. But now Bratton is gone, and the institutional pressure is moving toward abandoning effective street-corner policing.
Can de Blasio resist that pressure? Is he inclined even to try? The answers to those critical questions are to be found, in preview, in New York City’s public spaces—its transportation terminals, its subway platforms and trains, its sidewalks and its parks. Check them out—just be careful where you step.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images