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Law enforcement focus on quality-of-life offenses renews old debate over ‘broken windows’ policing

The return to confrontational tactics popular in the 1990s come after the massive US protest movement that emerged from the May 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white former Minneapolis police officer. His death led to scores of policing reforms some now predict will be undermined by a law enforcement approach that largely targets communities of color. Floyd’s fatal police encounter started with a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill used to buy a pack of cigarettes.
“A lot of the quality-of-life offenses that communities are complaining about they don’t know who else to call but the cops,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project in New York.

“Our society has been conditioned to call the cops for every single issue when we shouldn’t necessarily be doing that… We throw the cops at everything, which means they are now expected to do more and be more and wear more hats — many of which they are not able to or qualified to do.”

‘You’re not going to just do whatever you want’

NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell on Wednesday unveiled an initiative to reduce shootings and thefts, as well as quality-of-life offenses such as drinking on the streets, loud parties in public spaces and driving with suspended or revoked licenses.

Sewell and Mayor Eric Adams insist the strategy is not a return to a broken windows policy that helped spur another controversial NYPD practice known as stop-and-frisk — which was ruled unconstitutional nearly a decade ago for unlawfully targeting Blacks and Latinos.

“To be clear, this is not a return to ‘Stop, Question, and Frisk’ — nor is it ‘policing for numbers,’ ” Sewell said in a statement. “This enforcement will be responsive to community complaints and concerns.”

Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who co-founded Datalytics, which evaluates criminal justice data, said studies have shown more aggressive policing to be ineffective in reducing violent crime.

“We’ve learned that stop and frisk is not the answer, that violence reduction can happen independent of that, and we saw that in New York over many years,” he said. “So as far as … data providing credence that we should have more of those policies, I don’t think there’s any evidence of that.”

The NYPD said that since 2019, calls about drinking on the street doubled to 3,193 from 1,452, while calls about loud parties in public spaces jumped to 9,013 from 3,338.

Reports of people with knives in the transit system have increased 139% in the same time period, according to the NYPD. Calls about subway drug sales jumped by 71%.

“You’re not going to walk into Duane Reade and take whatever you want and walk out,” Adams said. “You’re not going to hop over the counter and take codeine and other drugs… You’re not going to drive motorcycles through the streets, pulling people out and assaulting them merely because of a traffic accident. You’re not going to openly inject yourself with drugs. You’re not going to just do whatever you want in the city.”

‘We won’t go back to abusive policing’

When major crimes in New York City spiked nearly 60% in February compared to the same month in 2021, Adams announced a plan to combat gun violence, crime and homelessness in the subways. Advocates accused the city of criminalizing homelessness.

Crime in New York reached historic lows over the past three decades before numbers started to go up in 2020 — a trend that has continued over the last two years and mirrors what is happening in big cities around the country.

Part of the mayor’s response was to bring back the NYPD’s controversial anti-crime unit, which was disbanded in August 2020 following racial justice protests and unrest across the country. The unit has been rebranded as Neighborhood Safety Teams tasked with patrolling high-crime neighborhoods.
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On Monday, after another weekend plagued by gun violence, Adams announced the deployment of five additional Neighborhood Safety Teams (NST) across the city. They will work with patrol officers in a more proactive role expanding duties beyond 911 calls.

The first plainclothes teams, the mayor said, were deployed a week earlier and conducted more than 30 arrests in neighborhoods with 80% of the city’s gun violence. Ten of those arrests were for gun possession. The others involved drug sales, suspended or revoked licenses and criminal possession of a knife.

Adams, a former NYPD lieutenant, insisted this week that the NYPD is not resurrecting the broken windows approach but bolstering public safety while ensuring civil liberties.

“We are not going back to the policing that I fought to change,” said Adams, noting that video technology will be used to monitor the behavior of officers.

“We won’t go back to abusive policing,” he added.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the union representing rank-and-file members of the NYPD, voiced support.

“We will do our part to confront these quality-of-life issues,” Lynch said in a statement. “Our communities have been pleading with us to put an end to the lawlessness.”

‘Association between urban blight and crime’

Miami Beach imposed a midnight spring break curfew after two shootings left five people injured.

Other cities around the country also are dealing with not only the third year of a pandemic but also responding to the deadly crisis of gun violence.

In Detroit, Police Chief James White this week released a 244-page community safety strategy in response to an increase in violent crime that jumped 13% in 2020 compared to the previous year. In 2021, violent crime increased by just 3%, according to the police department.

The goal of the plan is to reduce violent crime by 10% in part by focusing on quality-of-life issues such as large, loud gatherings and public consumption of drugs and alcohol. The department will also use body-worn cameras to monitor the interactions of officers with the public.

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“There is an association between urban blight and crime, including violent crime,” the document said. “We want to continue reducing violent crime in neighborhoods by closely monitoring vacant lots and abandoned or neglected buildings.”

In Miami Beach, the city commission voted on Tuesday to impose a curfew during spring break this weekend. Some nighttime alcohol sales were banned. The dramatic move and emergency order came after five people were injured in two shootings on Miami Beach’s iconic Ocean Drive last weekend.

“I’m at my wit’s end trying to figure out how to be able to deal with this crowd, with the numbers that are here, and with what we are encountering during the policing of this particular event,” Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements told commissioners at an emergency meeting.

Since the spring break season began in February, nine officers have been injured in some capacity, Clements said.

Asher, the crime analyst, questioned the strategy.

“Instituting a curfew is unlikely to have much of an effect on violence,” he said. “You’re basically removing witnesses, removing people from the streets. If you have a curfew it plausibly could lead to more crime and more shootings because people feel freer to act more brazen. There’s little evidence that something like a curfew is going to have an effect.”

‘We’ve tried this before’

Asher said homicides have risen more than 5% in 99 US cities so far this year — to 1,313 compared to 1,248 during the same period in 2021. But he cautioned against drawing conclusions from the numbers in March, noting that the summer and fall data provide a clearer picture of the national trend.

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“It is clear the police can curb violence in the short run or crime in the short run,” said Cornell University criminal justice expert Jamein Cunningham. “But then the question is at what cost? That’s the policy question. I don’t think we have a really good answer.”

Cunningham and other experts acknowledge that policing aimed at high-crime areas is effective in the short term. But they warn of high costs from further straining relations with communities of color while ignoring social services and neighborhood programs.

Wong, the Legal Aid attorney, said a return of more confrontational practices, particularly in marginalized communities, undermines the reforms and other small gains brought about by the protest movement after Floyd’s death.

“We’re coming off the heels of nationwide protests calling for police accountability for police brutality,” she said.

“Many of those encounters were because of broken windows policing… You never see a police department apply broken windows policing to themselves when it comes to accountability and transparency for their own misconduct. We’ve tried this before. Why are we doing it again if it didn’t work?”

CNN’s Laura Ly, Emma Tucker, Kristina Sgueglia, Jamiel Lynch, Susannah Cullinane and Amir Vera contributed to this report.


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