NYPD work slowdown winds down, but New York may be changed for good

A work slowdown by police in New York, orchestrated as a protest against Mayor Bill de Blasio, has had unintended consequences. One of them could be profound for US policing: Fewer arrests didn't result in more crime.

Stephanie Keith/REUTERS
A New York Police Department patrol vehicle is seen near the Marcy Houses public housing development in the Brooklyn borough of New York January 9, 2015.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the decision by New York Police Department officers to stop busting folks for low-level “quality of life” crimes like jaywalking and pot possession made New York beat cops, well, happier.

The number of weekly citywide criminal summonses has dropped by over 90 percent after protests erupted over the refusal of a grand jury to indict a NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold.

The impact of the slowdown has been quick and dramatic. Court houses are calmer, public defenders have more time with clients, and police officers are spending more time watching than interceding.

But even as Police Commissioner William Bratton’s patience with the work protest has now worn thin, it’s clear that the slowdown has helped to shift the perception of policing and crime in the Big Apple.

For one, the fact that serious crimes didn’t spike during the slowdown gives New Yorkers a fresh angle on the city’s long “broken windows” era where officers are encouraged to make small-time arrests in order to discourage more serious crimes.

Less noted, however, “is how many police officers are themselves ambivalent about actively enforcing low level offenses, and how that bodes for the post-slowdown future of policing in New York,” writes Jacob Siegel, in the Daily Beast.

To be sure, arresting lots of people for small-time crimes has paid some dividends.

New York has for years been as safe as it’s ever been to live in and visit. Yet it was only last year that police finally decreased the use of so-called “stop and frisk” tactics that ended up impacting mostly poorer minority communities. The failure by politicians and police leaders to throttle back “broken windows” as the crime rate has fallen has in turn fueled the current stalemate, some knowledgeable observers argue.

“More police productivity has meant far less crime, but at a certain point New York began to feel like, yes, a police state, and the police don’t like it any more than you,” retired NYPD lieutenant Steve Osborne, author of the forthcoming book “The Job: True Tales From the Life of a New York City Cop,” wrote this week in the New York Times.

He added: “The time has probably come for the Police Department to ease up on the low-level ‘broken-windows’ stuff while re-evaluating the impact it may or may not have on real, serious crime. No one will welcome this more than the average cop on the beat, who has been pressed to find crime where so much less of it exists.”

The push is now to get police to start making more arrests again.

Union head Pat Lynch suggested that officers increase arrests by 50 percent from the slowdown low. But so far, Police Commissioner William Bratton, who has pushed “broken windows” since starting the job in 1994, and Mayor de Blasio have continued to wholeheartedly endorse the tactic as a way to keep New York safe and New Yorkers happy.

“We’re coming out of what was a pretty widespread stoppage of certain types of activity, the discretionary type of activity by and large,” Mr. Bratton told NPR on Friday.

To be sure, the situation has been tense in the precincts of America’s largest and arguably most premier civilian police force. The murders of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on Dec. 20 as they sat in their patrol car felt to police like a “cold-blooded assassination” by someone who had signaled intent to hurt police officers, Mr. Osborne writes.

The fact that de Blasio has acknowledged some of the points made by protesters – including that some broad policing trends have racist overtones – angered some cops enough to turn their backs on him at the funerals of the murdered officers.

In fact, as Osborne notes in his Times piece, the slowdown happened almost organically, because it wasn’t hard to convince cops that they were not bucking a greater public good by slowing down on penny-ante arrests.

The majority of New York cops, he said, have never been very excited about giving criminal summonses for crimes like loitering, public urination, and jaywalking.

In an interview with the Daily Beast, an East Harlem officer who has participated in the slowdown concurred.

“I have to suspend my disbelief to see how sentencing a guy with an open container is going to really bring crime down,” the officer said.

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