'Broken windows' policing doesn’t bring down felonies, study says

New York's police department believes that enforcing laws against petty crime helps with felony deterrence, but many departments are shifting away from this model. 

Kathy Willens/AP
New York City police officers patrol across the street from a makeshift memorial for victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting at the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement, on June 15 in New York. New York Police Department activities in the last two decades have held to the notion that keeping petty crime down helps with felony deterrence, but as departments around the country seek to improve community relations, a new report finds no link.

A data analysis found no link between enforcement of low-level quality-of-life crimes and the felony crime rate, the office charged with overseeing New York City's police department said Wednesday.

The report took pains to make clear it was not commenting on the New York Police Department's overall "broken windows" policing approach, but critics of the policy said the findings were proof that going after low-level crimes as a way of deterring larger ones doesn't work. The NYPD called the report flawed.

The inspector general for the police, which is part of the city's Department of Investigation and independent of the NYPD, looked at data for offenses like public urination and public drinking from 2010 to 2015, as well as felony arrest data. In that period, the number of summonses and misdemeanor arrests issued for those acts decreased, but there was no increase in felony crime.

DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said the report wasn't questioning whether or not quality-of-life crimes should be addressed by police, but was looking specifically at whether going after them made a difference in felonies.

"What we found is, it's not a very efficient way to deal with felony crime," he said.

The report also found that low-level crime enforcement was concentrated in precincts that had high proportions of blacks and Hispanics, public housing residents and males between the ages of 15 and 20.

Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College who has been an outspoken critic of broken windows policing, said the report was a "major blow" to the theory.

"Repeated efforts have been made to find a causal link between intensive quality of life enforcement and serious crime reduction, and this report, as has been the case with others, shows no such connection," he said.

Although the report centers on New York policing, it comes as departments around the country are looking to improve relations with minority communities. Better community policing – including in day-to-day stops and enforcement against petty crime – has been seen as part of the response to seething protests ignited by the deaths several black men in police custody, The Christian Science Monitor's Harry Bruinius reported:

Even before the tumultuous summer of 2014, New York’s black and Latino communities had long bristled at the intense focus on such minor infractions in their communities in an effort to reduce more serious crime – the hallmark of the “broken windows” theory, the legacy-defining policing techniques pioneered by Commissioner Bill Bratton decades ago.

The shift in thinking today, says David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, "is really less about the direct financial costs than it is about the lasting burden on individuals and families and communities that comes with lots of people having criminal records. It's the fines, the warrants, the anger at the police department – it's all kind of things that police especially didn't pay attention to for a long time. And now it is."

The NYPD pushed back strongly, issuing a statement that called the report's assumptions and methodology "deeply flawed."

The department said that looking at five years of data wasn't enough and that the comparison should have gone back to 1990, before broken windows was implemented. The NYPD said it would be releasing a more detailed response within 90 days.

Peters said the point was to look at the impact of these types of summonses and misdemeanors in the most recent data.

"Is it possible that criminal quality of life summonses had a different impact 20 years ago? Maybe, but we're not living 20 years ago," he said.

The report comes out almost a month after the City Council passed a law that lowers penalties for some of the quality-of-life offenses, an overhaul meant to reduce court backlogs, steer people to the civil rather than criminal system, and keep people from being saddled with criminal records for a nonviolent, low-level offense.

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