Proactive policing fights crime, but at high cost for civil liberties

‘Stop and frisk’ policy has sparked controversy in NYC for targeting black and Latino residents

The “broken windows” theory, which advocates that proactive policing can limit crime, became a model in many cities around the country, including New York. But now, decades later, strategies like “stop and frisk,” which stemmed from the theory, are criticized as discriminatory and overly excessive policing.

George Kelling and James Wilson, authors of the 1982 Atlantic magazine article on “broken windows,” argued that more police presence, especially foot patrols, and better care for property reduce crime and elevate quality of living:

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

The authors go on to argue that if no one cares about a damaged property, it can lead to a snowball of crimes and violence.

A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

Influenced by the theory, New York City, and other municipalities across the country, began combating graffiti, abandoned buildings and vehicles, etc., with cleanup efforts and foot patrols. During Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration between 1994 and 2001, such efforts were praised for cleaning up the city's dangerous and visually unpleasant neighborhoods. 

Giuliani's police commissioner, Bill Bratton, who saw Kelling, the co-author of “broken windows,” as an “intellectual mentor,” was a strong believer in the theory, and put it in practice with aggressive crackdowns on other minor offenses like turnstile jumping and possession of small amounts of cannabis. 

The strategy carried over to Giuliani and Bratton’s successors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who took it a step further by adopting the controversial “stop, question, and frisk” policy (or simply “stop and frisk”).

Stop and frisk

"Stop, question and frisk" is a New York Police Department policy in which the police stop pedestrians, question them and sometimes search them if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the pedestrian "committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor."

Although praised for combating crime and keeping New York City streets safer, the program came at a heavy cost for black and Latino male residents, rights advocates argue.

In every year from 2002 to the present, more than 50 percent of the individuals stopped and frisked by the NYPD were black and at least 29 percent were Latino, according to data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Hundreds of thousands were stopped and almost 90 percent were innocent of any crime, the data shows. 

Advocates argue that the program is not only discriminatory, blanketing suspicion over whole communities, but also ineffective and unconstitutional. 

According to police Commissioner Kelly, the program "is effective … You used to not be able to walk down the streets of this city safely, and today you can walk every neighborhood during the day and most neighborhoods at night."

But the NYCLU argues that "no research has ever proven the effectiveness of New York City’s stop-and-frisk regime, and the small number of arrests, summonses, and guns recovered demonstrates that the practice is ineffective."

After street protests and legal challenges, the city's newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced reforms to the program in January.

De Blasio agreed to the appointment of an independent monitor for three years to oversee the creation of reforms aimed at ending discrimination. The monitor will oversee a process in which those communities most affected by the program will provide input on the reforms.

Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, welcomed the mayor's announcement with caution.

"Nobody standing here today is pretending this is mission accomplished. The problem hasn't been solved," he said. "We will have a collaborative reform process. We'll have a court monitor to ensure these reforms move forward."

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