What does it mean when police make arrests? When you think about it, it's actually a complicated thing. Does it mean that a community is teeming with violent lawbreakers that the officers in blue are systematically clearing from the street, Or are the cops following a commander's quota system, taking in suspects or issuing summons for lesser, non-violent offenses -- like, say, selling loose untaxed cigarettes -- that don't necessarily require a SWAT team.
Or, put another way, does arresting a lot of folks reduce crime in a meaningful way, or does it RAISE the crime rate through statistics by putting so many violations on the books? There's no arguing that America has the highest incarceration rates of any industrialized nation. But is that from too much lawlessness... or too much policing and prosecution?
Thanks to the NYPD, we may finally find out. In one of the most bizarre twists to a major national story that I've seen in a while, rank-and-file cops are now showing their contempt for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio through a massive work slowdown. With the flow of arrest papers and summons slowed to a trickle, the city that invented "broken windows" policing -- the theory that more arrests for lesser "quality of life (QOL)" crimes like graffiti or drinking a beer in public will curb more violent crime -- has just pulled a 180:
We don't know yet if crime has taken a holiday. But arrests have:
Officers made half as many arrests in the seven days through Sunday as in the same week a year ago. In the entire city, 347 criminal summonses were written, down from 4,077 a year ago, according to police statistics. Parking and traffic tickets also dropped by more than 90 percent.
Most precincts' weekly tallies for criminal infractions were close to zero: In Coney Island, the precinct covering that neighborhood did not record a single parking ticket, traffic summons or ticket for a low-level crime like public urination or drinking, the statistics showed.
So, if you've ever had a burning desire to urinate on the sidewalks of Coney Island...go crazy, folks, go crazy! Why are the police -- who in large numbers turned their backs on de Blasio at funerals for two slain officers, believing he's too sympathetic with a growing protest movement over police violence -- doing this? Well, they're hitting City Hall in the pocketbook, since New York, like municipalities from coast-to-coast, rakes in big bucks from all these arrests. The more cynical might also wonder whether cops and their increasingly loud union leaders are waiting for the next violent crime in order to say, "I told you so."
But here's the thing: There no evidence yet, anecdotally or statistically, that violent crime and theft has spiked during the police slowdown. (Indeed, crime rates in New York City remained at historical lows in 2014 even after de Blasio mostly ended the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk.) At least so far, doesn't this validate the complaints from communities of color that they are over-policed. over-arrested, and over-incarcerated?
The New York Times published an op-ed this morning that was something that a lot of people -- myself included -- were eager to see: A police insider's perspective on the current unrest within the NYPD, written by a well-connected retired officer. I think you'll agree that it poignantly describes the pressures that beat cops work under -- how his wife would toss and turn in those pre-dawn hours when he was serving summons on criminal suspects. I thought that Steve Osborne's case against de Blasio was unconvincing, but there was also a buried pearl: His stunning admissions about "broken windows" policing:
Most cops I know feel tired of being pushed to do more and more, and then even more. 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 do. Tremendous successes were achieved in battling crime and making this city a much better place to live and work in and visit. But 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.
Whoa -- let's get this straight. The police don't want "broken windows" policing, nor do many of the people in the neighborhoods where this policy is carried out. So who still supports it? For the most part, it's spineless politicians whose default position on any question of law-and-order is more, more, more. More arrests, more fines, and more people behind bars serving longer sentences. For all the rancor and unrest that's existed since Mike Brown was gunned down by an officer in Ferguson last summer, America could actually be standing on the cusp of real, meaningful change -- if our leaders have any courage.
And let's also be clear: This is hardly just a New York City issue. It resonates right here in Philadelphia, which is about to elect a new mayor who will not only pick the next police commissioner but decide whether to ease up on this style of policing, or keep the pedal to the metal. It's a big issue with a lot at stake, not just for police officers but for urban residents. Here's the flip side of Osborne's piece -- what the "broken windows" strategy looks like from across the street:
Ten years ago, when I first moved to New York City, some friends invited me out to an afternoon concert in Central Park. This was an event filled with upper-middle-class white people enjoying music and culture—and an occasion, it turned out, to flaunt the city's open-container laws. I was naïve enough to be surprised at how many of my friends were publicly drinking wine and liquor from badly disguised canisters, cups, and flasks. Eventually the party staggered out of the park and on to the Upper West Side, down the streets, and into the subways. Riders greeted us with smiles and laughter, pedestrians gave us you-crazy-kids nudges. Our portable debauchery snaked all the way home to our dorm rooms.
A few months later I was walking around the Lower East Side, on my way to meet friends. I decided to stop into a bodega and get a beer, which I sipped out of a brown paper bag as I blithely wandered near a housing project. A police officer materialized, and when he checked my ID, he seemed surprised that I didn't live in the housing project. He wrote me a ticket me for the open container and let me go. I didn't think much of it. I was, in fact, breaking the law. But what a contrast from my earlier infractions, in a white space with white friends.
When I went to court for my ticket, I noticed that almost everyone there answering summonses and paying fines was black or Latino. The QOL penalties, it seemed to me, were a backdoor tax for the city, and the people feeding that coffer overwhelmingly looked like me. Most stared ahead and mumbled agreements to the judge so they could leave. Some pleaded for leniency or extra time to pay, citing lack of income. Sixty dollars here, $200 there. These amounts would have momentarily inconvenienced Upper West Siders. In that courtroom, those figures were pushing people to tears.