NEW YORK—The death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner from an apparent chokehold during a police arrest has put police–community relations in the spotlight nationwide.
On Thursday the two sides met. Activists and city council members rallied outside City Hall, while the mayor, police commissioner, and community leaders met inside.
The activists are going after a policy they see as ultimately responsible for the death: broken windows policing, but the topic was largely sidestepped by the administration today. Clearly, it’s sensitive.
The broken windows theory of crime states that the tolerance of minor offenses like the vandalism of a window contributes to serious, violent crimes. The theory has been adopted by many police departments countrywide since the 1980s with apparent success, but it has also proven controversial.
On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio hosted a roundtable at City Hall, where the Rev. Al Sharpton sharply criticized the New York Police Department’s policy of targeting petty crimes as detrimental to minority communities.
“In terms of these Broken Windows kind of operations, it’s disproportionate in the black and Latino community. If Dante [de Blasio] wasn’t your son, he would have been a candidate for a chokehold,” Sharpton said at the roundtable.
Police officers arrested Garner, a 43-year-old African-American, on suspicion of selling untaxed, individual cigarettes—breaking a figurative window. Garner died during the process after saying “I can’t breathe,” and a smartphone video of the incident went viral on social media, where officers were denounced for allegedly killing him with an illegal chokehold.
Members of the online forum in support of law enforcement workers PoliceOne.com defended the arrest, and said that Garner’s weight—reportedly between 350 and 400 pounds—contributed to his cardiac arrest. They also brought up Garner’s police record: 31 arrests since 1988, including one in May for selling untaxed cigarettes, which NYPD confirmed.
Sharpton and Garner’s family met with senior federal prosecutors from the U.S. Eastern District in Brooklyn last Friday to discuss options for a civil rights investigation of the incident.
“We’ve asked the Feds to come in because that’s the only time we’ve seen success,” Sharpton said at the roundtable. “The state courts seem incapable of breaking this kind of relationship with the police department.”
Police Commissioner William Bratton assured the roundtable that action was being taken to prevent future cases of police brutality.
The officers involved in Garner’s death are subject to an internal investigation by the department as well as an investigation by the Staten Island district attorney. Those rallying outside demanded full accountability for the officers involved.
“We will learn from this. We will move forward in a way to ensure that the memory of this tragedy is around the idea of the good that came out of it rather than just the negative,” Bratton said. “I am committed to that.”
He said he would reform police engagement to be “state of the art” and said that a budget projection for a planned retraining of the entire 35,000-member department has already been made.
“This is an organization that has been deficient from my perspective in the training it gives to its officers,” he said, adding that “training is absolutely the essential catalyst for out of this tragedy finding opportunity …”
During the roundtable, Bratton made no mention of the broken windows policy, which was the main subject of the protest outside the steps of City Hall organized by the Communities United For Police Reform. He has earlier and repeatedly expressed that he remains committed to it.
Bratton has been a strong proponent of the broken windows theory, and defended it in the pages of the National Review in 2006 with one of the originators of the theory, George Kelling.
“The [broken windows] theory always had its critics. Some were anti-police groups seizing any opportunity to detract from police achievements,” he wrote, citing the decline of murders in New York City from 2,262 to 629 from 1990 to 1998—when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani oversaw a crackdown on minor offenses—as proof that the theory worked.
These apparent results haven’t persuaded everyone, and tensions between the police and various communities have only intensified in the digital age.
“When I watched the video of Eric Garner’s arrest, I cried, my blood boiled,” said Keeshan Harley, a speaker at the rally. “Slavery ended just 140 years ago, that just brought it back to my mind, as if I was there, this was a lynching that happened, it is the same pretense, the same oppression.”
Harley thinks the situation has gotten “significantly worse” in the past few years, a sentiment reflected in complaints against the NYPD, which shot up to 8,532 in the first half of 2014, up 7 percent from the same period last year.
At the roundtable, Mayor de Blasio, who had appointed Bratton to his current post, signaled his support for the department’s broken windows policy.
“I want to commend Commissioner Bratton and Chief Banks, and everyone at NYPD for continuing to drive down crime,” he said. “And I also want to commend them for starting aggressive processes of reform, so that we can have low crime while creating more dialogue and mutual respect.”
De Blasio, who had appointed Bratton to his post, was careful to differentiate ongoing NYPD operations from the stop-and-frisk policy he opposed in his campaign for mayor.
“We all know in [the stop-and-frisks a year ago] almost 90 percent of those stopped got no summons, no arrests, no nothing, because they hadn’t done anything,” he said. “Now you see people stopped more and more because there is a reason and there is a consequence, and that’s what we set out to do.”
The theory of broken windows is a popular subject of research in academia, and there are numerous studies and meta-studies lined up both for and against the theory. The politically freighted nature of the matter had led to both sides accusing each other of bias and unscrupulous debate.
The National Review article Bratton co-authored was motivated by the publishing of a 2006 paper by Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig in the University of Chicago Law Review, which argued that the decline in murder and other crimes in New York City in the 1990s were caused by the end of the crack epidemic.
Bratton wrote that Harcourt’s study evinced egregious bias, as his reanalysis of a previous study removed two neighborhoods in the original analysis where there was a strong correlation between disorder and crime.
Some have argued that because different communities have different definitions of disorder, a genuinely scientific analysis of the theory is impossible.
Still, the major natural experiments where large metropolitan areas implemented broken windows policies have resulted in large drops in crime. Los Angeles, where Bratton was police chief from 2002 to 2009, saw a 26 percent decline in overall crime and a 25 percent decline in homicides in his first three years in office. The support the mayor has continued to show for the commissioner suggests that aggressive pursuit of minor offenses is here to stay.
“In Commissioner Bratton, I appointed the finest police leader in the United States of America period—I’m convinced of that,” de Blasio said at the roundtable.