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N.Y.C. crime is low: But at what cost?

Mayor Bill de Blasio hired cop’s cop William Bratton to lead the NYPD, but the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner has heightened acrimony between the police and minority communities. The events in Ferguson, Mo., have added to tensions.

By , Staff writer

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    A police officer guarded the site of a shooting in Manhattan in July. The killing by police of a suspect in Staten Island that same month raised tensions.
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When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office at the start of this year, one of his first priorities was to restore the long-fractured relations between the New York Police Department and the city’s black and Latino communities.

From the start, it was a delicate political task for the progressive firebrand. Mr. de Blasio had swept into City Hall as an outspoken critic of the NYPD, railing against its aggressive tactics and their outsized effect on the city’s minorities – which hardly endeared the new mayor to the rank and file of the nation’s largest police force.

Yet de Blasio, the first liberal Democrat to lead New York in 20 years, knew his success hung precariously on maintaining New York’s never-before-seen low crime rates. Any significant uptick in crime could delegitimize de Blasio’s entire agenda.

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So the mayor took a calculated risk: He brought back William Bratton, a cop’s cop and arguably the most influential police chief in a generation, to begin a second tenure as commissioner of the NYPD. Twenty years ago, Mr. Bratton was the original architect of many of the aggressive, targeted police tactics that have roiled the minority communities that helped catapult de Blasio into office last fall.

“I think to cover his right flank, de Blasio put Bratton in there to try to keep a handle on crime and disorder while he worked on his bigger, long-term initiatives,” says Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and a critic of Bratton’s approach to policing.

The gamble seemed to work at first. Bratton helped mollify a wary and beleaguered police department, and the mayor still had enough political capital early on to reassure his allies on the left even as he began offering full-throated support for the NYPD.

But eight months into de Blasio and Bratton’s first year together, cops and community activists continue to seethe. And the killings of two men by police, one in New York and one hundreds of miles away, have caused the mayor’s delicate political balance on crime to begin to come undone.

In Staten Island, the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in July – ruled a homicide by the city’s medical examiner and vividly captured by bystanders’ smart phones – has ratcheted long-simmering acrimony between minority communities and police to its highest point in years, both sides say.

Mr. Garner, who resisted his arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, suffocated to death on the sidewalk, crying out “I can’t breathe” while locked in an apparent chokehold banned by department policy.

Then, the palpable restlessness on New York’s streets got even worse. Police in Ferguson, Mo., fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, sending the St. Louis suburb’s mostly black residents to the streets to protest, often with rage and violence – creating an even larger national crisis in the relationship between police departments and minority communities.

“The morale is terrible, actually,” says Sgt. Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association and a 32-year veteran of the NYPD. “I was over in the academy ... and I spoke to many different ranks – police officers, detectives, lieutenants, a couple of captains – and almost everyone I talked to, all they talk about is the issue from Staten Island.”

“They feel they don’t have the support from the mayor’s office,” Mullins says, “and right now the department is basically being – I’ll use the word – crucified for the whole incident in Staten Island.”

Earlier, Mullins said at a testy August press conference that members of the NYPD should do their job “by the book” – suggesting a work slowdown. “If there’s a delay getting to the next place, so be it,” he said.

Indeed, to make matters worse, there has been a rash of shootings in New York this summer – a 10 percent increase from this time last year – underscoring de Blasio’s reliance on his police force as he begins to implement his larger reforms to the city’s sprawling criminal-justice system.

But there has been good news, even as turmoil continues to reach a fever pitch. Except for the troubling spike in shootings, overall crime is still falling fast. Through July of this year, Bratton’s first six months on the job, murders are down 10 percent from last year, reported rapes 7 percent, and robberies more than 12 percent.

And in the past few months, the de Blasio administration has already begun to implement reforms to make New York, in effect, a liberal laboratory for new approaches to crime – his primary goal.

In August, the mayor announced an expanded effort to support “violence interrupters,” a program that hires street-smart members of the community to locate and intervene in disputes that could erupt in violence or gunfire.

“We want to re-create the notion of a village – that people see what’s happening and stop something before it goes down,” de Blasio said at an August press conference. The mayor has also promoted other community-based interventions to quell crime before it happens, including more resources for youth programs, such as his signature after-school and pre-K initiatives.

The administration has also begun an overhaul of the city’s long-neglected and underfunded jails and mental-health services system. In August, the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan released a scathing report describing New York’s infamous Rikers Island as rife with medieval levels of cruelty and systemic violence aimed especially at adolescents. The US Attorney also reported that the majority of inmates at the facility suffered from untreated mental illnesses.

Even so, the death of Garner – and, to a degree, that of Mr. Brown – has drawn de Blasio’s attention away from remaking the city’s criminal-justice system, and back to the issue that swept him into office. This time, however, the mayor is on the receiving end of a tsunami of relentless criticism about Bratton’s theories of policing, which revolutionized urban crime fighting two decades ago.

Bratton’s ‘broken windows’

After the notorious crime waves of the 1970s and ’80s, Bratton came to New York under the aegis of a relatively new “broken windows” theory of urban crime fighting, which made a priority of removing signs of blight. Appointed in 1994 by new Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a former pit bull federal prosecutor, Bratton helped create, essentially, a conservative laboratory for bold new ideas to preserve law and order.

That gives Bratton’s second tenure an odd kind of symmetry: Crime is now at previously unheard-of lows, New York’s infamous mean streets have become the safest of any metropolitan area in the United States, and a new progressive, liberal mayor has been charged with easing back on aggressive urban policing.

But 20 years ago, Bratton’s broken windows theory, drawn from scholars James Wilson and George Kelling, included innovative reforms. As city workers relentlessly scrubbed graffiti from subway cars and buildings, Bratton instructed officers to crack down on low-level crimes such as turnstile jumping, drinking in public, and even panhandling for change at street corners with a squeegee and a pail of dirty water. Bratton also pioneered new techniques for beat policing. He instituted the nation’s first use of CompStat, the sweeping data-driven management tool that maps crime and disorder; holds precinct captains accountable; and enables cops to swarm efficiently to high-crime areas. Hundreds of departments use CompStat today.

The efficiency-minded tactics also led to an innovative use of what became known as “stop and frisk,” the restricted but constitutionally permissible procedure that allows cops to temporarily detain, question, and, if necessary, pat down those they see engaging in what they deem suspicious behavior. The tactic served as a kind of preventive dragnet policing, snaring street toughs carrying weapons, drugs, or both – and, in theory at least, nipping crime in the proverbial bud.

Indeed, since Bratton first put his stamp on the NYPD, nearly every measure of crime has fallen to record lows. In 1993 there were nearly 2,000 murders in the city; in 2013 there were 335 – the lowest since New York started keeping records. In 1993, too, there were more than 100,000 burglaries; in 2013 there were about 17,400 – a startling 83 percent drop.

Such figures appear to give a resounding vindication of Bratton’s methods. “It’s very powerful,” Professor Vitale, an expert on urban policing, says of the numerical correlation. But the numbers alone, he says, do not prove the validity of the methods.

“The reality is, crime started dropping several years before Bratton took office, certainly before he started making any changes in the way policing is done,” Vitale continues. “It’s an international phenomenon. It has occurred in hundreds of cities, many of [which] had never heard of broken windows theory, had never heard of CompStat, had made no changes in their policing.”

Indeed, across the country, and in nearly every American city, crime has fallen to just a third of what it had been 25 years ago.

But more significantly, critics maintain, Bratton’s methods based on the broken windows theory have wreaked havoc on a generation of young black and Latino men, whose lives have been altered by the kind of penny-ante arrests that are a hallmark of the theory.

Last year, a federal judge found that the NYPD’s particular dragnet practice of stop and frisk violated the Constitution. Though permissible in reasonable circumstances, New York’s officers were given vague guidelines for a lawful stop, the judge ruled. And given the overwhelmingly skewed numbers – from 2002 to 2011, almost 90 percent of people stopped were black or Latino, and 88 percent of all people stopped during this time were never charged with a crime or given a citation – the judge ruled it an illegal method of racial profiling.

De Blasio and Bratton have curtailed the practice of stop and frisk dramatically, but minor-infraction arrests and broken windows summonses have continued unabated. Garner, before his death, had been arrested numerous times for low-level crimes such as selling loose cigarettes.

And, again, such low-level arrests, even under the de Blasio administration, have been skewed toward communities of color. According to an analysis of the New York Daily News, between 2001 and 2013, about 81 percent of the 7.3 million violations handed out were to blacks and Latinos.

“My neighborhood is like it’s under martial law,” Angel Garcia, a resident in East Harlem, told the Daily News. “These officers, they just run around and [find] any excuse to ask you for your ID and write you a summons.”

Appeal to attorney general

And now, just as in the case with stop and frisk, a coalition of minority leaders and community activists are asking the federal government to step in. In August, six members of New York City’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for an investigation into the policing that led to Garner’s killing.

“Mr. Garner’s death has taken place in the context of a broken windows policing strategy that appears to target communities of color for the enforcement of minor violations and low-level criminal offenses,” the letter states. “To the extent the NYPD is engaging in a racially selective law enforcement campaign pursuant to its broken windows approach, the constitutional and federal civil rights of black and Latino residents may be in jeopardy.”

For now, de Blasio has fully supported his commissioner and police officers – the difference between being a progressive activist and mayor of the nation’s largest metropolis. But his supporters may soon grow impatient as acrimony continues to build in a summer of racial unrest.

“I wouldn’t overrate any one moment,” de Blasio said amid the controversy. “We’re on a much bigger track here. We have bigger work to do. I’ve now been in public life about 25 years in this city. The vast majority of New Yorkers respect deeply the police, rely on the police, want the police around to protect them.”

“There have been some individual incidents,” he continued, “and each time we try and figure out how to do better. And we will do better. We have to do better. But the bigger situation here is what matters.”

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