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NYPD commissioner defends broken-windows policing

Rejecting criticism, Bratton argues controversial policing strategy has made New York safer

With the New York Police Department’s broken-windows theory of policing under intense scrutiny, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has co-written a long defense of his department and the controversial strategy.

In a 4,500-word essay posted Sunday night on the website of the policy magazine City Journal, Bratton and co-author George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, argue that broken-windows policing — the practice of cracking down on minor offenses because, in theory, they create visible signs of public disorder that encourage more serious crimes — has played an essential role in reducing crime in New York City over the last 20 years.

Progressive groups such as Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) argue that broken-windows policing tends to be racially biased. The group has referred to it as "the same old stop and frisk," a reference to another policing practice recently used in New York that was believed to have been unevenly applied on a racial basis.

"Misdemeanor arrests that disproportionately target people of color for the lowest-level offenses have severely strained relations between local communities and the police," said CPR director Joo-Hyun Kang in an emailed statement responding to Bratton and Kelling's essay. "These arrests have real consequences on people's lives, including jeopardizing housing, employment, educational and immigration opportunities."

The broken-windows theory has been contentious for decades, but the debate over whether it hurts or harms communities of color became especially heated after the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed on July 17 by a Staten Island police officer. The officer was attempting to subdue Garner during an arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes — the type of minor offense that is fair game for a broken-windows-style arrest.

Yet Bratton and Kelling argue that broken-windows policing does more good than harm in communities of color and that African-Americans and other people of color tend to support the policy.

"Our experience suggests that, whatever the critics might say, the majority of New Yorkers, including minorities, approve of such police order-maintenance activities," they write. "After all, most of these activities come in response to residents’ demands ... Contrary to conventional wisdom, citizens almost invariably are more concerned about disorderly behavior than about major crimes, which they experience far less frequently."

Bratton and Kelling have a considerable stake in defending the broken-windows theory. Kelling, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, co-authored the original 1982 Atlantic essay on the theory with the late James Q. Wilson, a political scientist. Bratton, through his leadership roles in the police departments of New York, Boston and Los Angeles, helped put the theory into practice.

In recent statements responding to criticism of the NYPD’s policing practices, Bratton has sounded a conciliatory note. On Sunday he called for "a lot more dialogue" between police and protesters and chided NYPD officers who participated in public protests against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a critic of stop and frisk who campaigned in part on a promise to end that practice.

Yet Bratton's essay makes clear he has no intention of rolling back broken-windows policing to meet the demands of protesters. Instead, Bratton and Kelling question the credibility of advocates who "obviously have never been to a police/community meeting in a poorer, mostly minority neighborhood" and academics who write "ivory-tower studies ... [that] don't prove what they purport to prove."

That last remark was a broadside against social scientists who have argued that factors other than broken-windows policing are responsible for New York's steep decline in violent crime during the 1990s. A 2006 study by academics from the University of Chicago Law School and Georgetown University concluded that increased policing reduces crime but found "no empirical evidence to support the view that shifting police towards minor disorder offensives would improve the efficiency of police spending and reduce violent crime."

Kelling and Bratton reject such findings, pointing instead to multiple field studies that they say suggest eradicating visible signs of disorder reduces the likelihood of violent crime.

That argument is unlikely to persuade Bratton's critics, who argue that broken-windows policing serves only to damage the communities it is supposed to help.

“In fact, there are many factors to point to that helped to drive down crime, including critical community leadership in neighborhoods," said Kang. “The continuation of broken-windows policing will only deepen the divide between police and community.”

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