Stats Test Police Chief’s ‘Broken Windows’ Claim

     MANHATTAN (CN) — The New York City Police Department’s top watchdog released a report exposing new cracks in “broken windows,” a crime-fighting strategy its top cop has advocated for decades.
     Since the early 1990s, the NYPD’s Commissioner Bill Bratton has touted a controversial theory championed by sociologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson — that clamping down on petty misdemeanors like graffiti, marijuana and public urination prevents more serious crimes.
     New York City experienced a dramatic drop in crime during the early years of this strategy, and the city’s then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bratton claimed this to be a simple case of cause and effect.
     Social scientists, however, have long questioned this narrative.
     Crime rates plummeted across the United States during the same years, even in cities like San Diego, Washington, St. Louis and Houston that never adopted Bratton’s methods.
     The NYPD’s inspector general Philip Eure set out to empirically test the relationship between so-called quality-of-life arrests and felony rate, in what the office called the “first ever, independent, data-driven investigation” of its kind.
     On Wednesday, the inspector released an 84-page report finding the connection lacking.
     “OIG-NYPD’s analysis has 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,” the report states. “Between 2010 and 2015, quality-of-life enforcement rates — and in particular, quality-of-life summons rates — have dramatically declined, but there has been no commensurate increase in felony crime.” (Emphasis in original)
     Despite dramatic reductions in quality-of-life arrests, felony crimes did not increase throughout the six-year study, the inspector said.
     “In fact, felony crime, with a few exceptions, declined along with quality-of-life enforcement,” he added.
     Confirming what civil libertarians argued for years, the inspector found that black and Latino communities bore the brunt of the police strategy.
     “In 2015, the rate of quality-of-life enforcement in precincts citywide was positively correlated with higher proportions of black and Hispanic residents, New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents, and males aged 15-20,” the report states. “As the representation of these populations increased in a given area, the rate of quality-of-life summonses and misdemeanor arrests also increased. Conversely, precincts with higher rates of white residents had less quality-of-life enforcement.”
     The extensive study analyzed more than 1.8 million quality-of-life summonses, 650,000 quality-of-life misdemeanor arrests, 600,000 felony complaints, and 200,000 felony arrests.
     The NYPD released an unsigned statement calling their watchdog’s report “deeply flawed.”
     “The report fails to acknowledge what all New York City residents know: that every community in the city is safer and has a better quality of life due in large part to the extensive quality of life enforcement efforts and proactive policing that was implemented in 1994 by the New York City Police Department,” the statement says.
     Calling the six-year time frame “narrow,” the NYPD said the inspector should have examined decades of statistics, and it promised to release a written response within 90 days.
     The department also noted that the inspector general’s report stopped short of making sweeping findings on broken windows as a policing strategy.
     “One wouldn’t know that, reading today’s news coverage,” the NYPD said.
     The inspector general’s office cautioned the NYPD to simmer down its “heated rhetoric,” and accept its conclusions.
     “Our team of statistical and law enforcement experts ensured that each point made in the 84-page Report accurately reflected the data provided to us by the NYPD and was in context,” the office said in a statement. “Indeed, despite the heated rhetoric, the NYPD demonstrates no actual methodological flaws.”
     For the New York Civil Liberties Union, the extensive study vindicated what activists have been saying for years.
     “The Inspector General’s report confirms what the NYCLU and other advocates have known for years — the NYPD’s aggressive focus on low-level violations and misdemeanors doesn’t make anyone safer,” its advocacy director Johanna Miller said in a statement. “Instead, it erodes community confidence in the police and introduces literally millions of people into the criminal justice system.”
     The inspector general is hardly alone in finding little, if any, connection between quality-of-life arrests and deterring more serious crimes.
     In 2001, Bernard Harcourt had just earned a Harvard doctorate when he challenged the broken-windows theory in his groundbreaking book, “Illusion of Order.”
     Now a Columbia University law professor, Harcourt argued 15 years ago that the theory had never been empirically verified and relies on unexamined categories of “law abiders” and “disorderly people.”
     Three years later, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson helped demonstrate how a police officer’s “implicit bias” — often racial — could determine who gets lumped among the orderly citizens and the scofflaws.
     Broken windows policing has come under increasing criticism after an NYPD officer placed an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, in a fatal chokehold two years ago for selling loose cigarettes, a classic quality-of-life offense.
     Wednesday’s report marks the first such criticism from the department’s own internal watchdog, but the department’s statement suggests it will continue to buckle down against its detractors.

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