By Tom Allon
In the 1970s, when I was a teen on the Upper West Side, I was mugged twice in broad daylight. The city felt more dangerous then, in the wake of the early ’70s fiscal crisis and the blackout of ’77, which led to widespread looting, and gritty movies like “Death Wish,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3.”
Each film depicted a chaotic metropolis where crime was ubiquitous and the police seemed reactive.
But New York, and the rest of the country, began a war on crime in the early ’90s, which has not abated. The murder rate continues to decrease, a phenomenon that has continued during the first half of this year, even with a new mayor, police commissioner and a relaxing of stop-and-frisk. Shootings are up more than 10 percent, which may be an ominous sign, but so far the city still feels safe and the statistics seems to back that up.
There have been some moments over the summer that have made some worry that the “bad old days” were on the rebound and that the city was moving in the wrong direction. A few weekends over the summer had multiple shootings and deaths. There was the death of Eric Garner while he was being arrested, which resulted from aggressive policing after it was alleged that Garner was selling loose cigarettes on the street. This is illegal, but a minor offense.
This case, which resulted in criticism of the NYPD over a few weeks and a peaceful protest march in Staten Island, is worth examining as an example of the potential downside of Broken Windows.
Broken Windows emerged in the early ’90s, advanced by Harvard professor George Kelling that if low-level crime flourished in cities, it would indicate that law enforcement and the government were lax and this would lead to more serious crime. Busting subway graffiti artists, fare beaters, squeegee men, lawless panhandlers and others would send a message that the city no longer tolerates minor crimes and allow the police to put through the system petty criminals who may have outstanding warrants, thus getting them off the streets.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his first NYPD commissioner, Bill Bratton, were the first practitioners of this way of policing and since then we have seen a record drop in crime but also the incarceration of a high percentage of young minority men.
New York has become the safest large city in America, and now, more than two decades after he first became commissioner, Bratton is back in that role, wiser and more experienced after a successful stint as head of the Los Angeles police department.
But now Bratton has a tricky job: maintain New York’s record-low crime rate, keep the use of stop-and-frisk down and defend Broken Windows in an environment where some question whether we still need it.
Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, has resurfaced again as an activist and advocate against any cases of perceived police brutality. During Bratton’s first tenure, Sharpton was shut out of City Hall. Today, he sits on panels with the mayor and leads protest marches.
Recently, a poll of New Yorkers showed that Bratton’s approval rating has gone down. He brushed it off. His job is to keep crime down, keep his force aggressive enough to continue to keep New Yorkers feeling safe and avoid any incidents like what happened to Garner and Michael Brown, in Missouri.
There was a public and critical letter by the head of the sergeant’s union, Ed Mullins, criticizing the mayor for not defending the police vigorously enough and alleging that the city is slipping backward in its fight against crime. Mullins said the city is not an appropriate place for the Democratic Party to hold its 2016 primary convention because it’s not safe enough.
Is this criticism of the mayor a line in the sand to make sure there are no more protests against the police and to warn the new administration that it should be as forcefully behind the “thin blue line” as the past two administrations? Will Bratton allow for this kind of dissension in his ranks or will he try to crack down to keep his department unified?
Now that stop-and-frisk has been neutered as a public issue, it seems the next line of attack will be against Broken Windows. How strong Bratton and de Blasio will defend it in the coming months could determine whether Bratton will remain head of the NYPD for at least the next three years and whether New York will continue to keep crime stats down and quality-of-life issues out of the news.
The mayor and his police commissioner and force are at a crossroads. How they react to these crosscurrents will shape our city’s future.