In recent weeks, New Yorkers have been watching a family drama unfold among an angry patriarch, the mayor, Bill de Blasio; his petulant charges in the Police Department, apparently as huffy as 12-year-olds told to stop texting; and a mother, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who, like mothers everywhere hoping to get Daddy to understand and the children to listen, has been trying to broker peace.
What risks getting obscured in a story whose other central characters include irritable union leader babysitters and their incitements to misbehavior is that the significant rift here isn’t political. It is civic, spurred by the continued friction between an underclass with ample reason to feel alienated from the modern culture of law enforcement and a police department that can seem intolerant of any challenge to its methods and methodologies.
Just how wide that gulf remains was evident this week, when New York City advocates for police reform delivered testimony to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing that condemned the practice of “broken windows” policing, which postulates that summonses issued and arrests made for minor offenses preclude the eruption of major crimes.
Writing on behalf of the group, Communities United for Police Reform, Monifa Bandele, a native of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who now lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, called for an end to the approach, arguing that its casualties include the black and Hispanic men who end up stigmatized, burdened with fines and arrest records that make it harder to find jobs, secure loans or obtain housing. At the spectrum’s far end are unnecessary civilian deaths.
A few weeks before, writing in City Journal, a periodical publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, Commissioner Bratton put forth a lengthy defense of the policy he has passionately advocated and implemented for decades, arguing essentially that minorities love “broken windows”; that critics who don’t see this “have never been to a police/community meeting in a poorer, mostly minority neighborhood”; that those who attribute historic decreases in crime to broader social trends are lost in academic mumbo-jumbo; and that anyone else standing in opposition to the practice must be too young to know that New York was once Detroit.
Both Mr. Bratton and his critics on the left understand that the way forward is for police officers to vastly improve their relationship with the communities they serve and for community members to be more deeply involved in the maintenance of the social order.
This notion of community or neighborhood policing, as Michael Jenkins, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton and author of the new book “Police Leaders in the New Community Problem Solving Era,” pointed out, arose in tandem with “broken windows,” both in the literature and in practice. But the approaches have come to be regarded as antagonistic to each other, or at the very least have taken on the veneer of incompatibility, in large part because of the discriminatory tactics of stop-and-frisk, which “broken windows” engendered — a relationship that Mr. Bratton refuses to acknowledge.
“Different neighborhoods have different ideas about the problems they’ll want police responding to, and varying capacities to manage disorder,” Mr. Jenkins said. “If police are viewed as intervening across the board everywhere or viewed as carpet-bombing an area, that’s usually not going to be helpful to community relationships. If you add a layer of disrespectful or unnecessary interactions with citizens, broken windows can be denigrated.”
Additional testimony before the president’s task force this week included a report from Dolores Jones-Brown, a former prosecutor and director of the John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice, who argued that San Diego, a model for alternative techniques, had experienced a greater long-term reduction in violent crime than New York had without resorting to broken-windows tactics. From 1991 to 1998, she wrote, New York’s homicide rate declined by 70.6 percent but San Diego’s dropped by more than 76 percent. From 2002 to 2012, while violent crime in New York fell by 19 percent, violent crime in San Diego fell by 27 percent.
How was this accomplished? In the ’90s, for example, when a spate of robberies occurred around a particular bus stop, the San Diego police, rather than flooding the area with officers or making mass arrests, simply relocated the bus stop to a spot in front of a convenience store, which provided more light. The thought, which turned out to be correct, was that the robberies were largely crimes of opportunity, committed by impulsive young people who would not bother to set up shop elsewhere.
Underpinning the execution of “broken windows” is the conviction that someone doing something stupid — committing a minor act of vandalism, for instance — is on the path to becoming someone bad. As Ms. Bandele said, her neighbors are all too aware that while they may be given a summons for drinking beer on their stoop, residents of more affluent quarters of the city can do those sorts of things and go unnoticed and ignored.
If Mr. Bratton believes that “broken windows” is indispensable to keeping the city safe — and perhaps it is — then he must retool and reframe it, a process that might begin not with the arrogant dismissal of its critics, but with an admission and some attention to where it has gone wrong, or at least real recognition that, like any system, it is imperfec