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Bill Bratton’s ‘Broken Windows’ Overshadows Legacy

New York is now considered one of the safest megacities in the world, but NY Police Commissioner’s legacy is tainted

bill bratton

Former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at the St. Patrick's Day Parade, 2014. (Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr)

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has resigned after facing intense criticism from civil liberties groups over his support of Broken Windows policing. Despite his many accomplishments, this policy tarnishes his long career. More than 5 million people have been stopped by police in New York since 2002, with nine out of 10 of those stop-and-frisked being innocent of any crime

The police commissioner of New York, William J. Bratton, retired this month amid a wave of criticism from civil liberties organizations, despite the crime rate in the city being at the lowest point in modern history.

Bratton has served twice as police commissioner in New York City. His first tenure began in 1994 under Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, where the new NYPD head quickly earned renown for the swift drop in the murder rate: from 1993 to 1995 felony crimes, including homicides, dropped by nearly 40 percent. Crime rates declined by another 35 percent between 1996 and 1998, after Bratton had left office.

He returned to the post in 2014 after being summoned back by current Mayor Bill de Blasio. Crime has continued to drop since the 1990s: according to the NYPD, there were 1,946 murders in the city in 1993 compared to the 352 murders in 2015. Since Bratton first became commissioner, there have been nearly 30,000 fewer murders in New York and on his watch, the city recently experienced its safest summer in 22 years. New York is now considered one of the safest megacities in the world.

Bratton has credited this success to his implementation of CompStat, a computerized crime tracking system, and the introduction of Broken Windows policing, a policy that has NYPD officers aggressively targeting minor or “quality of life” offenses—such as graffiti, fare jumping and public urination—in an effort to prevent more serious crimes. Both were introduced during Bratton’s first stint as commissioner and he has fiercely and unwaveringly defended them, even as he went on to lead police departments in Boston and Los Angeles.

It was recently hailed by the Mayor, “The same strategy that helped make us the safest big city in America,” de Blasio said recently, “is still making us the safest big city in America.”

But the commissioner’s abrupt departure—Bratton is leaving his post a year early for a position at the Teneo Holdings, a global advisory firm—is followed by criticism from civil liberties groups arguing that Broken Windows is not only ineffective, but has evolved into a system where police systematically and disproportionately harass and arrest minorities.

Known as “stop-and-frisk”, the stopping, questioning and searching of individuals on the street has its origins in two 1968 US Supreme Court rulings that permitted police officers to conduct “reasonable” searches if he or she suspected the subject was armed or dangerous. It wasn’t until the introduction of CompStat, however, that stop-and-frisks were actively encouraged by leaders in the NY police department as a means to gather data.

According to an analysis of NYPD data by the New York Civil Liberties Union, more than 5 million people have been stopped by police on the streets of New York since 2002, with nine out of 10 of those stop-and-frisked being innocent of any crime. At its peak, in 2011, New Yorkers were stopped 685,724 times, with black and Latinos making up 87 percent of the stops. After a landmark ruling by a federal judge in 2013, that found stop-and-frisk violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, the numbers have declined.

And yet last year, NYPD still conducted over 20,000 stops, the  majority of which were of black or Latino individuals. Critics, including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, argue that fewer stop-and-frisks mean more weapons are in the hands of criminals in the city. But data shows that firearms are found in relatively few instances and crime rates have continued to fall.

Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU pointed out in a statement that the drop in stop-and-frisk incidents in New York also corresponded with historically low crime rates in the city but added “Commissioner Bratton remains stubbornly committed to broken windows policing. This outmoded policing model of the 1990s is not effective and thrusts millions of New Yorkers into the clutches of the criminal justice system.”

“We need a new era of policing in New York,” Lieberman said.

Another activist group, Black Lives Matter, which is credited by some news reports as pressuring the Commissioner to resign, had held a protest outside New York City Hall the day before his resignation, calling for the NYPD to be defunded and for Bratton to be fired.

The group was energized by his departure.

“William Bratton is the key architect of programs that have terrorized our communities for decades. His implementation of broken windows theory has wreaked havoc on communities from Los Angeles to New York City and beyond,” one member told Democracy Now!

The Communities United for Police Reform spokesperson Anthonine Pierre called Bratton “no reformer to communities impacted by abusive and discriminatory policing.”

These groups stand with a growing body of evidence indicating the impact of Broken Windows on criminal behavior is minimal at best. Most recently, a June report from NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure extensively analyzed millions of “quality of life” summonses, arrests and complaints found “no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime.”

Bratton, who criticized the Eure report, has previously conceded this point. “You’re not going to find the scientific study that can support broken-windows one way or the other.” He added, “The evidence I rely on is what my eyes show me,” he told The New Yorker in an interview last year.

Less than a week before he left office, Bratton once again went to the mat to defend the policy, supporting Broken Windows with the same zeal he showed two decades ago.

“The advocates out there that want to do away with broken windows … that feel that they can totally do away with stop, question and frisk, they’re crazy, they’re out of their minds,” the Commissioner said at an event hosted by the Citizens Crime Commission.

As Bratton now hands the reigns of the NYPD to his successor, James O’Neill, his legacy is both defined and tarnished by Broken Windows.

O’Neill has voiced his support his shift toward community policing, but civil liberties groups remain skeptical. CPR’s Pierre said that O’Neill, as Bratton’s “hand picked successor” has not shown he will change the status quo at the NYPD.

As long as Mayor de Blasio and the new police commissioner continue with discriminatory broken windows…the same problems will exist and this administration will have failed to provide systemic change.

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