What the NYPD‘s “Virtual Work Stoppage” Reveals About Policing.
The police fancy themselves the Thin Blue Line that is all that stands between citizens and violent criminals. It might make sense to call it “thin” if cops narrowly dealt with violations of person and property. However, their assigned role in society has always been broadened to enforce all of the state’s expansive edicts. As such, it would be more apt to speak of a Fat Blue Line whose excess girth encroaches upon liberty.
The Fat Blue Line became particularly engorged with the rise of Broken Windows “preventative policing” in the 80s and 90s, which heavily enforced the criminalization of “disreputable” but victimless behavior in order to make a community’s atmosphere allegedly less hospitable to serious crimes. In practice, it has become a policy of harrying and harrowing the poor with detentions, fines, court summonses, and jail time.
Broken Windows was most famously applied to New York City in the 90s by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and has been falsely credited for the rapid decline of crime rates in that city during that period. That decline was part of a nationwide trend in that period after the 80s crack epidemic ended, and coinciding with an improving economy and a rapid fall in unemployment. And New York City’s improvement was comparable to the improvement in cities that did not adopt Broken Windows. For more on this, see Justin Peters’s excellent recent article, “Broken Windows Policing Doesn’t Work.”
Nonetheless, the myth of the efficacy of full-court-press policing persisted, and contributed to the NYPD’s controversial Stop and Frisk policy under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio denounced and cancelled Stop and Frisk, but replaced it with a redoubling of Broken Windows: even bringing back Bratton as Commissioner. One particular Broken Windows enforcement resulted in the police killing of Eric Garner, in an attempted arrest over suspicion that he was selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. For more on Broken Windows and the murder of Garner, see my essay, “Broken Windows and the Nanny State.”
After Garner’s death, de Blasio held a press conference to defend Broken Windows, averring, “Breaking a law is breaking a law, and it has to be addressed.” But this did not save him from the NYPD’s wraith when he crossed the Blue Wall of Unconditional Support by expressing sympathy with the anti-police brutality protests that had swelled in the city following the grand jury’s failure to indict the officers who killed Garner.
The conflict came to a head after the murder of two NYPD officers by madman Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who cited the killing of Garner as a motivation. Leaders of the NYPD’s union accused de Blasio of complicity in the crime, saying that his “hands are literally dripping with our blood.” And rank-and-file cops have melodramatically turned their backs on the Mayor in unison on several occasions.
The union also issued a new policy directive via email, pursuant to the NYPD’s new status as a “wartime department”:
“Starting IMMEDIATELY: At least two units are to respond to EVERY call, no matter the condition or severity, no matter what type of job is pending, or what the opinion of the patrol supervisor happens to be.
IN ADDITION: Absolutely NO enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual MUST be placed under arrest.”
Now the NYPD is in the middle of a dramatic enforcement slowdown, which the cop-worshiping New York Post characterized in panicky terms as a “virtual work stoppage.” The Post further reported:
“Angry union leaders have ordered drastic measures for their members… including that two units respond to every call.
It has helped contribute to a nose dive in low-level policing, with overall arrests down 66 percent for the week starting Dec. 22 compared with the same period in 2013, stats show.
Citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587, during that time frame.
Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent — from 4,831 to 300.
Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241.
Drug arrests by cops assigned to the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau — which are part of the overall number — dropped by 84 percent, from 382 to 63.
The Post obtained the numbers hours after revealing that cops were turning a blind eye to some minor crimes and making arrests only 'when they have to'…”
“Absolutely necessary!” “When they have to!” Imagine that: reserving the use of force for actual attacks on person and property, and abstaining from gratuitous harassment. The police state lover’s worst nightmare! What would Judge Dredd think?
And notice that enforcement is especially dropping for the kind of petty “quality of life” offenses that Broken Windows policing enforces to the hilt. Broken Windows, it would seem, is broken (at least partially and temporarily) in New York City.
Besides the reasons offered by the union, what is the NYPD trying to accomplish with this rollback of their Fat Blue Line?
It is certainly not for the purposes of sticking it to the demonstrators. Broken Windows is one of the things they’re protesting, so they are certainly happy to see it go.
If it’s to show New Yorkers how much they need the Fat Blue Line by showing them what life would be without it, it will surely backfire. The city has not descended into barbarism since the cops started throwing fewer homeless people into cages. In fact, the only dramatic change we’ve seen is a lot more New Yorkers keeping a lot more of their dearly-needed money and freedom than usual.
And that leads us to what may be the real issue: revenue. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi argues that the main objective of the enforcement slowdown is to hit Mayor de Blasio where it hurts: the city budget.
Revenue, after all, is the underlying, unacknowledged purpose of most petty law enforcement, including Broken Windows. And police brutality, to a large extent, is a matter of power tripping cops reacting brutally when the serfs stiffen their backs against street-side, impromptu tax collection. For more on this, see my recent essay, “Why the Poor #CantBreathe.”
Revenue collection, after all, is the only thing Broken Windows policing accomplishes, aside from indulging the vindictiveness its well-to-do supporters harbor toward “riff raff.” The “Broken Windows Theory,” introduced in 1982 by James Wilson and George Kelling, is just as wrong as the “Broken Window Fallacy” debunked by Frederic Bastiat in 1850, as we can see from a comparison of the two. Murray Rothbard relates Bastiat’s “Parable of the Broken Window” as follows:
“Here, [Bastiat] outlines three levels of economic analysis. A mischievous boy hurls a rock at a plate glass store window, and breaks the glass. As a crowd gathers round, the first-level analysis, common sense, comments on the event. Common sense deplores the destruction of property in breaking the window, and sympathizes with the storekeeper for having to spend his money repairing the window. But then, says Bastiat, comes the second-level, sophisticated analyst or what we might call a proto-Keynesian. The Keynesian says: oh, but you people don’t realize that the breaking of the window is really an economic blessing. For, in having to repair the window, the storekeeper invigorates the economy by his spending, and gives welcome employment to glaziers and their workers. Destruction of property, by compelling spending, therefore stimulates the economy and has an invigorating ‘multiplier effect’ on production and employment.
But then in steps Bastiat, the third-level analyst, and points out the grievous fallacy in the destructionist proto-Keynesian position. The alleged sophisticated critic, says Bastiat, concentrates on ‘what is seen’ and neglects ‘what is not seen’. The sophisticate sees that the storekeeper must give employment to glaziers by spending money to repair his window. But what he doesn’t see is the storekeepers’s opportunity foregone. If he did not have to spend the money on repairing the window, he could had added to his capital, and to everyone’s standard of living, and thereby employed people in the act of advancing, rather than merely trying to sustain, the current stock of capital. Or, the storekeeper might have spent the money on his own consumption, employing people in that form of production.
In this way, the ‘economist’, Bastiat’s third-level observer, vindicates common sense and refutes the apologia for destruction of the pseudo-sophisticate. He considers what is not seen as well as what is seen. Bastiat, the economist, is the truly sophisticated analyst.”
Broken Windows policing can also be looked at with three levels of analysis, with the first common-sense level and the third sophisticated level being in agreement and true, and the second level being false, and far more sophistical than sophisticated.
When a decent, humane person (a first-level analyst) sees a non-violent fellow being accosted and arrested by the police, to later be jailed and likely fined, he would sympathize with the victim (thereby passing Will Grigg’s Tom Joad Test for not being an instinctive authoritarian), lamenting his fellow man’s misfortune and the abrogation of his rights.
But the hard-nosed, tough-on-crime Broken Windows “realist” (the second-level analyst) will have none of this “soft-headedness.” He will deride the reluctance to “criminalize” victimless behavior, and dismiss concern for the man’s rights and as a “vague or parochial standard,” in the words of Wilson and Kelling in their seminal Broken Windows article. He will scoff at the excessive individualism of such a standard, as Wilson and Kelling did when they wrote:
“We have difficulty thinking about such matters, not simply because the ethical and legal issues are so complex but because we have become accustomed to thinking of the law in essentially individualistic terms. The law defines my rights, punishes his behavior and is applied by that officer because of this harm.”
The Broken Windows analyst will argue that, just as untended property (signaled by unrepaired broken windows) invites further vandalism, “untended behavior” (again, Wilson/Kelling) invites more serious criminal behavior, because potential criminals will assume that “nobody cares.” In defense of the cop, he will claim that, even if the victim “has harmed no identifiable person” (Wilson/Kelling), his “disreputable behavior” contributes to an atmosphere in which it is more likely that such harmful crimes will occur, and therefore he should be punished.
Taibbi aptly characterized Broken Windows as “Minority Report-style” pre-crime policing. However, in the above Wilson/Kelling formulation, it’s even worse than that. At least in the Philip K. Dick story, the police neutralized targets who themselves were deemed likely to commit a crime in the future. Even that is presumably too “individualistic” for Wilson and Kelling, who instead are chiefly concerned with a target’s influence on the behavior of others. Closer to Minority Report’s pre-crime is the spin on Broken Windows adopted by Commissioner Bratton, who called Kelling his “intellectual mentor,” and who sought to catch budding “career criminals” while they were still “green.”
So much for the second-level analyst. The libertarian theorist (the third-level analyst) will have none of these police state apologetics, and he will lend intellectual weight to the humane observer’s instinct that there is something wrong with aggression against the non-violent. The libertarian will point out that, just as with the original Broken Window fallacy, the problem with the second-level analyst is that he considers only “the seen,” and not “the unseen.”
What is “seen” is the arrested drunk, vagrant, or listless youth temporarily off the street, along with whatever social signals the Broken Windows advocate thinks that conveys. What is “unseen” is the devastation thereby wrought on the life of that already-struggling individual. Imposing upon a person punishments that handicap (imprisonment, court summonses, conviction records, driver’s license suspensions, etc), corrupt (prison time), and impoverish (fines, court fees, spiraling debt for failure to pay court fees, etc) him can only make him more economically and emotionally desperate, and thereby more likely to resort to serious crimes. Bratton’s policies are more likely to create career criminals, than to preclude them.
Preventative policing is just as foolish as preventative war. By wreaking havoc and desperation upon human lives, both engender what they are alleged to prevent: the latter, extremism and terrorism; the former, serious crime.
Broken Windows proponents adopt for policing the medical maxim, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” But that ratio is only true for actually preventative measures, and not for pathogens, which is what Broken Windows policies are. A medical precept more befitting matters of crime and punishment is, “First do no harm.”
Although it’s for all the wrong reasons, the NYPD is closer now to following that injunction than it has been for a long time. But the institution of state policing is completely antithetical to non-aggression, so we shouldn’t expect it to last long. All too soon, they’ll surely be back to generating broken lives and broken bodies in the name of Broken Windows.
Also published at Medium.com: