Did The NYPD’s “Broken Windows Policy” Of Policing Contribute To The Death Of Eric Garner?

July 22, 2014  |  

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the norm-setting and signalling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime. – courtesy of Wikipedia

Death at the hands of police officers is not an uncommon occurrence these days.

Capturing it on video is not really unheard of either. You can go to YouTube and literally pull up hundreds of hours of dashboard cams and cellphone footage of police brutality and misconduct. However, only eight percent of citizen complaints about police brutality and harassment are followed by disciplinary action. When watching the tragic video of 42-year-old Eric Garner, who died recently after being put into a chokehold by a police officer in Staten Island (chokeholds are prohibited in the NYPD police guide by the way), I wondered if his family would become part of the elite eight percent to receive justice, or would they join the vast majority of victims whose calls for justice go unanswered?

While I’d like to be optimistic, sadly, the realist in me believes that the outcome will be the latter.

You can watch the first half the video here. There is also new footage of the aftermath, which you can view here. Be warned that it is pretty graphic footage, as you will literally be watching a man take his last breath. But as hard of a watch as it is, I feel like it’s necessary to see in order to put a real face to the never-ending problem of police officers using excessive force, as well as to help identify ways in which we can keep these incidents from happening in the future.

Prior to being choked by the police, Garner plead his case to plainclothes cops who had swarmed around him. He tells them that he wasn’t doing anything and that he was actually breaking up a fight when the officers approached him. However, one of the cops in the video asserted that they had witnessed him illegally selling cigarettes.

According to New York Tax laws, which regulate the sale of cigarettes, selling loosies on the street is regarded as a misdemeanor, which comes with a ticket for a fine (although multiple arrests and convictions of the same violation could lead to actual incarceration, but that is usually at the discretion of the sentencing judge – not arresting officers on the street). So why didn’t one of the cops just write him a ticket and let him move on with his day? Why did he need to be thrown to the ground by the neck, subdued and handcuffed? And more importantly, why had Garner’s alleged misdemeanor of illegal cigarette selling need to be met with that degree of police intervention? I mean, calling backup for a misdemeanor offense just seems excessive. And yet, for the NYPD, this approach to crime fighting has long been the popular policy.

Just a couple of months prior to the death of Garner, The NYPD announced that it would be targeting subway performers, particularly the young pole dancers, who are mostly young black and Latino men. These individuals are known for doing acrobatics and Hip-Hop dance routines in the aisle of moving subway cars. The new emphasis on stopping the performers is all part of the department’s return to the “broken window” style of policing.

According to a recent CBS news article, quite a few performers have already been arrested:

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton is going after graffitists, motorcyclists, and now subway acrobats as part of his “broken windows” policy of policing. Over 240 performers have been arrested this year so far, compared to less than 40 people at the same time last year.

Is it a significant crime? Certainly not,” Commissioner Bratton said of cracking down on the seemingly harmless, but mayhem-inducing offense. The question is “Does it have the potential both for creating a level of fear as well as a level of risk that you want to deal with?

Police have started studying passenger complaints to figure out when and where to place plainclothes officers on the subway, in order to stop the potentially dangerous acrobatics.

The key word here is “potentially.” In other words, the city’s police department is wasting valuable resources and man hours to target what amounts to “potential” property crimes, public nuisances and other minor offenses, by going after the neighborhood squeegee man who “services” your car at intersections, the kids who bust a move for cash and ask to pump gas for you at gas stations, and the lowly schmuck selling single cigarettes out of a $12 pack of Newports.

Commissioner Bratton seems to think that data is on his side (although as noted in this Salon piece, even the NYPD has admitted that recent numbers on the effectiveness of the broken window policy of policing are unavailable and inconclusive) as well as history, as it was this same focus on broken window policing the commissioner used to allegedly reduce crime during the Rudy Giuliani years (ironically, New Yorkers are supposedly in the more “progressive” de Blasio years but with Giuliani-style policing). But the problem is that correlation is not causation. And at least one study of the implementation of Bratton’s broken window policing has shown that much of the statistical data around the reduction of real crime coincides not only with a national decline in violent crimes, but a time when unemployment had dropped and the economy had strengthened in the city.

In my opinion, a person who might sell “loosies” or does poorly choreographed dance stunts on a subway car probably won’t be the same guy who rapes, murders and pillages for the sake of causing mayhem. Sometimes they are just young poor kids. Maybe they’re homeless. Or in the case of Garner, perhaps they’re an older man with kids to support (if we are to go by the police’s official account of the events, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt). But more times than not, they remain pretty non-violent folks who are mostly trying to make a dollar out of a dime and a nickel while real criminals are moving about, running amok.

In fact, it appears the real criminalization happened when the police, aided by the criminal justice system and politicians who pass and co-sign these laws, decided that it would target low level “criminal activity” as a crime of interest, which means that black and brown people are profiled more. Now with arrest records, convictions, fines and maybe even incarceration, we have created barriers for individuals in the future to seek and access employment and even welfare, as well as financial aid for school and housing. 

Meanwhile, New York’s Financial District is about a 42-minute car ride away from where Garner died. I’m certain that there are plenty more significant non-violent offenses taking place there. But we rarely – if ever – see a video of cops swarming a white guy in a suit or wrestling him to the ground in a chokehold because they witnessed him discussing some insider trading. Nobody is worried about windows over there…


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