Longtime critics of the New York Police Department are seizing on the death of Eric Garner while in police custody to call for an end to proactive policing. Officers approached the 43-year-old Garner last Thursday in a high-crime area near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and accused him of illegally selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner had been arrested more than 30 times before, mostly for selling loose cigarettes but also for marijuana possession and other offenses. As captured in a cell-phone video, the 350-pound man loudly objected to the charge and broke free when an officer tried to handcuff him. The officer then put his arm around Garner’s neck and pulled him to the ground. Garner repeatedly stated that he couldn’t breathe, then went eerily stiff and quiet. After a seemingly interminable time on the ground without assistance, Garner was finally put on a stretcher to be taken to the emergency room. He died of cardiac arrest before arriving at the hospital. The autopsy has not yet been concluded, and it is too soon to say whether the officer’s apparent chokehold caused Garner’s death; Garner suffered from severe asthma and diabetes, among other ailments, which could have contributed to his heart attack.
Anger over Garner’s death is understandable. No one should die for selling untaxed cigarettes or even for resisting arrest, though the officers certainly did not intend to kill Garner, and a takedown may be justified when a suspect resists. Protests initially centered on the officer’s seeming use of a chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD and is thus against departmental policy. But NYPD critics have now expanded the campaign against the police to include misdemeanor enforcement—such as against Garner’s illegal vending—itself. This is pure opportunism. There is no connection between the theory and practice of quality-of-life enforcement, on the one hand, and Garner’s death, on the other. It was Garner’s resistance to arrest which triggered the events leading to his death, however disproportionate that outcome, not the policing of illegal cigarette sales. Suspects resist arrest for all sorts of crimes. The only way to prevent the remote possibility of death following an attempted arrest, beyond eliminating the use of choke-holds (if that is indeed what caused Garner’s heart attack), is to make no arrests at all, including for felonies. Nevertheless, we’re witnessing the start of the next chapter of anti-NYPD agitation. Having eviscerated the legitimate practice of pedestrian stops, the anti-cop brigades have now set their sights on broken-windows policing.
Broken-windows theory calls for the enforcement of low-level misdemeanor laws regulating public order, such as the ban on illegal cigarette selling that Garner repeatedly violated. Manhattan Institute fellow George Kelling and Harvard professor James Q. Wilson first articulated the theory in 1982 as a means of quelling public fear of crime and restoring order to fraying communities. William Bratton embraced the thinking in his first tour as NYPD commissioner in the 1990s; police commanders across the country have also adopted it.
Leading the present charge against broken windows policing is Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale. Members of the New York City Council and a preposterously named protest group called “New Yorkers Against Bratton” are close on his heels. Naturally, Vitale plays the race card, following other anti-broken-windows academics like the University of Chicago’s Bernard Harcourt. The NYPD disproportionately and unjustifiably targets minority neighborhoods for misdemeanor enforcement, says Vitale, resulting in the “over-policing” of “communities of color.”
Vitale should spend more time in poor neighborhoods. No stronger proponents of public-order policing exist than law-abiding residents of high-crime areas. Go to any police-community meeting in Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Harlem, and you will hear pleas such as the following: Teens are congregating on my stoop; can you please arrest them? Or, SUVs are driving down the street at night with their stereos blaring; can’t you do something? Or, People have been barbecuing on the pedestrian islands of Broadway; that’s illegal! The targets of these complaints may have been black and Hispanic, but the people making the complaints, themselves black and Hispanic, didn’t care. They just wanted orderly streets.
This past May, a public meeting in East Harlem discussed at length how the police could break up an entrenched cluster of vagrants and shelter residents on Lexington Avenue and 125th street; the unsightly gathering is a daily source of street fights and drug dealing. A representative from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office complained that, though the Metropolitan Transit Authority had designed the local benches on Lexington to be uncomfortable for long-term sitting or lying down, they weren’t uncomfortable enough to discourage the squalid encampment. (Even the most left-wing politician can change her tune when disorder is in her own backyard.) In another complaint that defies the anti-broken-windows critics, an emissary from Strive, a left-leaning job-placement program, asked the commander of the 25th precinct to evict a female squatter who was selling drugs from her illegal apartment. “Drugs are still the driving force of everything in our community,” he said. All these complaints embody a truth ignored by criminologists and street-level agitators: the fierce desire of the law-abiding poor to enjoy the same civility and order in their neighborhoods as the residents of Park Avenue take for granted in their own.
Vitale charges that the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes is enforced almost exclusively in communities of color. No surprise: That’s where the trade overwhelmingly occurs. I am regularly solicited for loosies on 125th Street; I have never been approached for such a sale south of 96th Street. Vitale claims that “in many courts around the boroughs,” a random spot-check performed by the Police Reform Organizing Project, a group he advises, found that 100 percent of those appearing for minor violations were people of color. Such a statistic only shows that the police are going where the crime and disorder is. All crime commission, whether felony or misdemeanor, is racially disproportionate.
The anti-cop critics now dispute the efficacy of quality-of-life policing. “There just isn’t any evidence that arresting squeegee men and aggressive panhandlers in midtown Manhattan helps reduce robberies and shootings in the outer boroughs,” Vitale says. That argument is a straw man: no proponent of misdemeanor enforcement has ever attempted to prove such a geographically attenuated causal link. But Michael Jacobson of the Vera Institute and James Austin of the JFA Institute, both liberal-to-left organizations, have shown that New York City’s misdemeanor enforcement led to a drop in felony arrests and felony incarcerations by getting potential felony offenders off the streets for low-level violations. And the core concept of broken-windows policing—that low-level disorder breeds more crime by sending the message that public norms and law enforcement have broken down—has been confirmed. Moreover, ending midtown Manhattan’s low-level lawlessness in the 1990s triggered the urban renaissance there, reviving the tourist and hospitality industries and producing thousands of jobs for outer-borough New Yorkers. To the extent that one believes that criminality is an economic problem, not a cultural one, New York’s public-safety-induced economic revival was the best anti-poverty and anti-crime program the city ever offered.
Vitale also argues that New York’s crime drop is no different from elsewhere: “There is very little support for the idea that Broken Windows policing in and of itself is responsible for the crime drop. The crime drop is a national and international phenomenon and it’s been happening in cities that never had Broken Windows policing,” he says. More straw men. No one has ever claimed that broken windows efforts were uniquely responsible for the crime drop. But they were part of a related set of strategies that catapulted New York far ahead of the competition. New York’s crime drop has been twice as deep and has lasted twice as long as the national average; it has no counterpart internationally. It’s hard to find a police chief around the country who doesn’t advocate broken windows policing, because commanders see with their own eyes its value in lowering crime and disorder.
Even if quality-of-life enforcement had no effect whatsoever on felony crime, however, it would still be a moral imperative, for it responds to the demands for order that police commanders in poor neighborhoods hear from their constituents every day. If the NYPD were to cut back on misdemeanor enforcement, it would be spurning the very New Yorkers whom Vitale and the City Council purport to represent. Scarily, however, Vitale sits on the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Expect to see his views amplified in a national forum.
The biggest threat facing minority New Yorkers now is not “over-policing,” and certainly not brutal policing. The NYPD has one of the lowest rates of officer shootings and killings in the country; it is recognized internationally for its professionalism and training standards. Deaths such as Garner’s are an aberration, which the department does everything it can to avoid. The biggest threat facing minority New Yorkers today is de-policing. After years of ungrounded criticism from the press and advocates, after highly publicized litigation and the passage of ill-considered laws—such as the one making officers financially liable for alleged “racial profiling”—NYPD officers have radically scaled back their discretionary activity. Pedestrian stops have dropped 80 percent citywide and almost 100 percent in some areas. The department is grappling with how to induce officers to use their lawful authority again to stop crime before it happens. Eric Garner’s death was a heartbreaking tragedy, but if the unjustified backlash against misdemeanor enforcement takes root and finds a sympathetic audience in Mayor Bill De Blasio, the consequences for all New Yorkers will be even more dire.