Since the 1990’s New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton has promoted a policing philosophy known as “Broken Windows,” which targets minor offenses in order to curb serious offenses. The Broken Windows approach encourages law enforcement officers to aggressively enforce laws against such minor infractions as selling loose cigarettes, dancing or playing music too loud on the subway, carrying a marijuana cigarette or riding your bicycle on the sidewalk. For years, the Broken Windows philosophy was praised for its effectiveness in reducing serious crime in New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle and other major U. S. cities. However, after the death of Eric Garner from a choke hold imposed when officers confronted him for selling loose cigarettes, some city residents and human rights groups have pointedly blamed Broken Windows.
Critics assert that Broken Windows’ supposed dramatic effect on more serious crime has never been supported by statistics. Furthermore, the philosophy is attacked as discriminatory, overwhelmingly affecting minorities in low-income neighborhoods: for example, during Mayor Blasio’s first 5 months in office, the City police department made 97,487 misdemeanor arrests, and 86% of those alleged offenders were black or Latino. Furthermore, the multiple encounters caused by Broken Windows “over-criminalization” of minor offenses create greater distrust between officers and minorities, increase the odds of police misconduct, and pave the way for fatal encounters like Garner’s. Opponents of Broken Windows are pushing for better police training about alternate enforcement methods, such as admonishing minor offenders to move along or issuing summonses rather than arresting those offenders. Opponents are also calling for greater accountability of police officers for their treatment of minor offenders. Finally, the more strident critics claim that no progress is possible until Broken Windows is completely abandoned.
Proponents of the Broken Windows, including Commissioner Bratton, maintain the system is still effective. Furthermore, they assert that “a violation is still a violation” and should be stopped because it is illegal and harmful to the public. They believe that allowing minor infractions to pass unpunished constitutes a failure to protect and serve the City’s residents.
The coming months will probably reveal an increasingly tense showdown among the Mayor (who campaigned on the promise of “reforming” the NYPD), Police Commissioner Bratton and the NYPD, individual citizens and advocacy groups such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, addressing Broken Windows and its possible alternatives.
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