Law & the Courts

‘Broken Windows’ Policing Does Work

(File photo: Chris Hondros/Getty)
Says who? Residents of poor black neighborhoods.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow is angry again. This time he’s angry at me, among other “tough on crime, fear-mongering iron fist-ers.” Also, of course, at the cops. I had debated Blow last week about a Wall Street Journal op-ed of mine on depolicing and crime. Blow followed up with an online column in the Times entitled “Romanticizing ‘Broken Windows’ Policing.” It exemplifies the confusions of the Left about crime and policing.

My article had proposed that a rise in violent crime in many cities across the country may be the result of officers’ backing off from proactive policing. The last nine months have seen non-stop agitation against the police profession. Officers have routinely been called racists, murderers, and scourges of black communities. Arrests in inner-city communities are even more tense than usual, thanks to the media’s constant amplification of the “racist cop” meme. Cops are becoming reluctant to engage in discretionary enforcement, according to their own reports, for fear that if an encounter becomes confrontational, they will become the latest YouTube racist-cop sensation — or, worse, could find themselves indicted for a crime.

Blow calls this depolicing thesis “pernicious and slanderous.” It amounts to the “revisionist romanticizing of ‘broken windows’ policies — including the notoriously heinous and morally indefensible, not to mention unconstitutionalas-practiced, stop-and-frisk.” It has the effect of “smearing the blood running in the street onto the hands holding the placards.” But if the depolicing thesis is true, he says, “if there are any officers intentionally restraining themselves from doing normal police work because citizens have protested over perceived excessive force, then those officers are guilty of a dangerous, unethical dereliction of duty.”

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Blow underplays the virulence of the anti-cop hysteria and simplifies the cops’ reaction to it. Officers are not engaging in a concerted, retaliatory slowdown; they are reacting in an understandable way to the ubiquitous charge that proactive policing has been inflicting, in Blow’s words, “sprawling, ruinous collateral damage” on black communities: They are doing less of it. They continue to answer 911 calls, if that’s what Blow means by “normal police work,” but if it’s a question of self-initiating an encounter for a low-level offense, or of stopping and questioning someone who they think may be armed, they are hesitating. Isn’t this precisely what the agitators wanted them to do?

Indeed, Blow ends his column, after the usual scattershot accusations of racism, with another swipe at broken-windows policing: “How you view ‘broken windows’ policing,” he writes, “completely depends on your vantage point, which is heavily influenced by racial realities and socio-economics. For poor black people, it means that they have to be afraid of the cops as well as the criminals.”

To test Blow’s assertion that broken-windows policing means that “poor black people . . . have to be afraid of the cops,” I attended a police community-council meeting in the South Bronx’s 41st Precinct last week. The “fear” that Blow attributes to “poor black people” was nowhere in evidence. Instead, I heard what I always hear from law-abiding residents of “poor black” neighborhoods: an urgent desire for more policing, not less, and above all for the enforcement of public-order laws in the face of an ongoing breakdown of informal social controls.

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“Oh, how lovely when we see [the police]!” an elderly woman from Hunts Point spontaneously exclaimed during the meeting. “They are my friends.” A retired transit worker, Earl Cleveland, told me: “Where I live, the police are very courteous; I’ve never had a problem with them. They do their best.” During the public Q-and-A with the precinct’s commander, residents complained repeatedly about large groups of youth hanging out on corners. “There’s too much fighting,” one woman said. “There was more than 100 kids the other day; they beat on a girl about 14 years old.” Another man asked: “Why are they hanging out in crowds on the corners? No one does anything about it. Can’t you arrest them for loitering? They’re perched there like birds.” A middle-aged man wondered: “Do truant officers exist anymore?”

The president of a local mentoring program, Israel Rodriguez, begged for a police watchtower in his neighborhood, a plea he has been making for ten years, he said. Whenever he hears gunfire, as he had over the previous month, he runs toward the shooting, terrified that one of his three children was struck. Shootings are up 167 percent in the 41st Precinct through May 24 of this year — and the precinct is not even considered one of the high-priority areas that are so worrying NYPD top brass as summer approaches.

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The precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Martine N. Materasso, promised that there would be “zero tolerance” for outdoor barbecuing, loud car stereos, and other broken-windows offenses during the upcoming Puerto Rican Day parade. “With public drinking comes fighting, and knives and guns,” she said. “People are going to have to go inside across the board, so we don’t get the usual: ‘You’re making us go inside, not them.’” No one attending the meeting complained about this planned assault on “poor Puerto Rican people”; from all appearances, they welcomed the assurance that the police would be maintaining order during the parade and its aftermath.

Before the meeting, the superintendent and two residents of a subsidized senior-housing building discussed a fellow tenant who was allowing teens to use his apartment for drug dealing. Their hypothesis: The elderly man was a “homo,” trading access for sexual favors. “For this to be happening, it frightens me very much,” one of the tenants said. “Drugs are very dangerous. The police should arrest those kids.”

As for pedestrian stops, a middle-aged man told me: “I think they should put [stop, question, and frisk] back. It was higher two years ago before the mayor took office. The criminals feel more comfortable now; it’s easier to get their hands on a gun.”

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All of these wished-for and promised enforcement actions are precisely the type of policing that Blow and other activists relentlessly blast as oppressive and racist. And if the officers of the 41st Precinct respond to these heartfelt requests for enforcement, they will generate precisely the racially skewed statistics that the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times will use against the NYPD, since such demands for public order come disproportionately from minority communities, where parental controls have broken down.

#related#Blow’s claim that one’s view of broken-windows policing depends on one’s “vantage point, which is heavily influenced by racial realities and socio-economics,” is true, but not as he intends it. In New York City, the only group of voters in a recent Quinnipiac poll who don’t support broken-windows policing is the 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Many young people have no experience of New York’s bad old days and are ignorant about what it takes to maintain the public safety that they assume is their birthright. The closer one is to crime and disorder, the greater one’s support for proactive enforcement. Slightly more black than white voters said they want the police to “actively issue summonses or make arrests” in their neighborhood for quality-of-life offenses: 61 percent of black voters wanted such summons and arrests, with 33 percent opposed, versus 59 percent of white voters in support, with 37 percent opposed.

Thanks to the non-stop attacks on broken-windows policing and proactive stops, however, officers are reverting back to the purely reactive policing of the pre-1990s era. Criminal summonses in New York, which are made up overwhelmingly of the dread “broken windows” enforcement, were down 26 percent by the end of May, compared with the same period last year. Arrests were down 17.4 percent. Pedestrian stops have dropped 95 percent since their 2011 high and are on track to go down another 42 percent this year. Meanwhile, homicide is up 20 percent this year from 2014, and shootings are up 20 percent from two years ago. In Baltimore, arrests were down 56 percent in May, and the month was by some measures the most deadly period in the city’s recorded history.

The puzzle for the police is what critics like Blow want them to do — police proactively and be accused of racism, or back off and wait for people to get shot and be accused of a dereliction of duty?

— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Are Cops Racist?

Editor’s Note: This piece originally misidentified Martine N. Materasso’s rank as captain. She is in fact a deputy inspector.

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