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What the NYPD Standoff Might Teach Us About Broken Windows Policing

The New York Police Department has been cutting down on arrests. Is that necessarily a bad thing?
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(Photo: omeromer/Flickr)

(Photo: omeromer/Flickr)

For the second week, the New York City Police Department has curbed its own policing procedures, continuing a self-imposed hiatus on low-level arrests. NYPD officers are arresting fifty-six percent fewer people than they normally would in this time span, based on prior years’ arrest records, according to the New York Times.

This has all led to plenty of dissection and discussion in the media; Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi called it, essentially, a misguided attempt by the police union to chastise Mayor Bill de Blasio for a perceived lack of sympathy.

But, politics aside, is cutting down on minor offense busts necessarily a bad thing?

This whole ordeal could prove to be one big lab test for the broken windows policing style that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton so readily embraces.

This whole ordeal could prove to be one big lab test for the broken windows policing style that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton so readily embraces. First introduced in a 1982 article by social scientists George Kelling and James Wilson in the Atlantic, the broken windows theory holds that petty vandalism, like graffiti, has a domino effect on more serious crime. The onus for cops then should be to wash out the small stuff, as that will deter the bigger criminals from taking root in a community. A building with smashed windows, the theory mandates, leads to vandalism, which leads to squatting, which leads to ... you get the idea.

Critics of broken windows policing—and there are many—argue that, much like stop-and-frisk, it targets minorities, and ultimately splinters relationships between police officers and targeted communities. (Yes, broken windows detractors argue, crime in New York City has dropped, but that could be more a result of the economic boom of the 1990s.)

There is, on the other hand, some evidence to support broken windows policing. An analysis by George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy concluded that the practice can indeed prove to be successful—when coupled with an understanding, perhaps an empathy, of those crime-ridden geographic areas.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that we simply don’t know, from a crime standpoint—something that, per Business Insider, two University of Chicago professors have already said, in their own 2006 study.

But what about the dollars and cents? The Atlantic’s Matt Ford points out (in 2014, not 1982) that, regardless of the policy itself, if the NYPD is able to keep the city safe while arresting far fewer people, shouldn’t that just become the new normal? From an economics standpoint, this makes sense. The Police Reform Organizing Project found that misdemeanor arrests—which generally fall under the umbrella of low-level arrests—cost New York City $1,134,000 per day, with each individual arrest amounting to $1,750, according to a report last month by Newsweek.

“We wanted to point out that these practices aren’t just unjustified and racially biased. They are also enormously expensive and a waste of government resources,” says Robert Gangi, director of the police reform advocacy group. “The work stoppage has been going on for two weeks. There’s not been an uptick in crime, and that supports our point, that the quota of broken windows policing is a waste of resources.”

This standoff can’t last forever. The question then is what, aside from politicking, it might teach us about policing strategies.