In a surreal reversion to the reactive thinking that contributed to New York’s sky-high crime rates of the early 1990s, Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance has just announced that his office and the NYPD will focus their attention on “serious crimes” instead of on low-level offenses like litter, public drinking, and public urination. Persons committing such allegedly “minor offenses” will now overwhelmingly be given a summons, if they are stopped at all, rather than be arrested; in response to that summons, they will have to pay a fine rather than face a judge and prosecutor.
It was this specious distinction between “serious” and insignificant offenses that Commissioner William Bratton torpedoed in his first tour as head of the New York Police Department in 1994. Bratton was then the most influential exponent of Broken Windows policing; that theory recognizes that allegedly minor offenses are often committed by individuals engaged in more “serious” crimes. Get a criminal off the streets for a low-level misdemeanor and you stand a good chance of preventing a felony. New York State’s prison population gives evidence for that proposition: the state prison rolls dropped 17 percent from 2000 to 2009, even as misdemeanor arrests in New York City (the overwhelming source of the state prison population) more than doubled. The reason for that decrease in the prison population (even as felony sentence lengths were rising) was that officers were intervening in criminal behavior earlier, before it had the chance to ripen into a felony.
But even if there were not a great chain of being in criminal offending, responding seriously to Broken Windows offenses is a moral imperative. Residents of high-crime neighborhoods complain to the police most frequently about the public disorder in their neighborhoods, rather than about violent felonies. They rightly want the same of quality of life that residents of more affluent neighborhoods take for granted.
Vance and Mayor Bill de Blasio justify this change in policy as a way to free up more police and court time toward the pursuit of “serious offenders.” These policy makers are signaling to police officers that the NYPD and Manhattan prosecutors no longer regard public-order offenses as a high priority. Some officers still equate “real” police work with arresting a robber; motivating them to take quality-of-life offenses seriously has always been a challenge. After this official recalibration of response, it is unlikely that officers will continue to devote much attention, if any, to public disorder. The litter on Manhattan streets has already become intolerable over the last year, signaling a city in decline. Such urban filth will now only grow worse.
The change in policy signals to offenders as well that the police department no longer regards offenses against the public order as serious. In theory, a summons and fine could be an adequate deterrent to anti-civil behavior. But arrested criminals already have a sky-high rate of evading court and of skipping out on warrants. Compliance with the law is not likely to increase under this change.
Like all of the ongoing seismic changes in the criminal-justice system, the attack on Broken Windows policing is driven by race. But if the majority of arrests for public-order offenses occur in minority neighborhoods, that is because the majority of such offenses occur there as well. The solution to racial disparities in the criminal-justice system is not to target policing. It is to bring the black crime rate down, something that depends first and foremost on revalorizing the two-parent family. Until that happens, however, downgrading the police response to public disorder does a disservice to the residents who have to live with its consequences.
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