Bratton critics call for ‘reexamination’ of Broken Windows

July 21, 2014
Azi Paybarah
Capital New York

At a series of rallies over the weekend, the Rev. Al Sharpton cast the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island as another chapter in an ongoing battle against police brutality.

But some critics of police commissioner Bill Bratton say Garner's death, which came as he was being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, should instead prompt a "reexamination" of Bratton's core strategy of Broken Windows policing.

“The academic evidence is clear,” said Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale at an anti-Bratton rally outside City Hall on Monday. “There is very little support for the idea that Broken Windows policing in and of itself is responsible for the crime drop. The crime drop is a national and international phenomenon and it’s been happening in cities that never had Broken Windows policing.”

The rally was organized by a small group called “New Yorkers Against Bratton," which has called for Bratton's dismissal and a federal probe of the Garner case.

At the event, Vitale said, “I hope this very human tragedy creates the political space for a fundamental reexamination of the department’s top-to-bottom reliance on Broken Windows-based policing, that over-polices communities of color and criminalizes young black and Latino men in particular.”

Since his appointment as police commissioner in January, Bratton has spoken about the need to stamp out examples of disorder and lawlessness in order to establish a sense of law-and-order on the city’s streets, and deter more violent crimes. 

When he made his first comments about the death of Garner last week, Bratton drew a distinction between the officers who behaved inappropriately (two were immediately put on modified duty) and others who were on the scene, aggressively policing a troubled neighborhood.

The police confrontation with Garner took place in Tompkinsville Park, a small, troubled commercial strip on the northern part of Staten Island, which Bratton described this way: "It’s a little triangular park in a very small commercial area almost directly across from the Staten Island Ferry ferminal. The immediate area had been the subject of numerous community complaints by local residents and merchants. Year-to-date at that location there have been 98 arrests for various offenses, 100 cease summonses issued mostly for quality-of-life offenses, as well as 646 nine-eleven calls for service within the immediate area of that very small park.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has backed Bratton's emphasis on Broken Windows.

Last September, after he moved into the lead of the Democratic mayoral primary, de Blasio told reporters: "I am someone who does believe in the core notions of the Broken Windows theory."

Even before de Blasio took office, a group called Communities United for Police Reform, called on him and Bratton to announce a shift away from policing quality-of-life crimes, fearing it would disproportionately affect poor and minority residents. Bratton not only ignored the request, but initiated a new crackdown on subway performers. Those arrests increased five-fold compared to last year, and were mainly concentrated in a handful of subway stations.

Bratton also brushed aside a new initiative from Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson, who announced earlier this month he will no longer prosecute first-time offenders arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

After the press conference on Monday, Vitale told reporters the indicator to watch is the number of people arrested for marijuana possession, not the number of people who are subjected to stop-and-frisk, which de Blasio pledged to reduce as part of his mayoral campaign.

“I think for now we’re going to continue to see a lot of low-level marijuana arrests," said Vitale. "They’re right back where they were under the Bloomberg administration, which means if they’re not doing stop-and-frisk, they’re doing something to get into the pockets of tens of thousands of young people every year, and that’s the basic problem, not stop-and-frisk.”

The only elected official at the event was State Senator James Sanders of Queens, who told me he stopped by just to hear what was being said. When I asked about the call to fire Bratton, Sanders said the "call is premature, but the outrage is real."

Topics: Broken Windows