By Tom Allon
Some believe that history is cyclical while others believe that the march of progress in humankind is linear. Both are compatible beliefs, but to these macro theories of history I add another: the pendulum of life often swings until it reaches a “tipping point” and then it shifts course and swings back in the other direction.
This theory, I believe, can be applied on a more micro level to New York City’s crime-fighting tactics and now, it seems, we have reached a new “tipping point” that may require us to reverse course and head back in the opposite direction.
Allow me to explain.
A little more than two decades ago, the crime rate was soaring and New York felt ungovernable. Our police department was largely reactive and many families and older people fled the city because they feared for their safety. The New York Post famously bellowed in a headline, “Dave, Do Something!” urging then-embattled Mayor David Dinkins to try to stop the rising tide of crime and chaos in Gotham.
Dinkins, to his credit, did do something, and along with then Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, started the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program that added thousands of police officers to the force.
But voter anger at the rising crime stats swept Dinkins out of the mayoralty in 1993 and brought in two new sheriffs: Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his first police commissioner, Bill Bratton. They decided to adopt a few innovative policing strategies and theories. The first, Compstat, used daily data to send resources to areas that had the greatest concentration of crime. The second, the “Broken Windows” theory of policing, mandated pursuing low-level misdemeanors such as subway fare evasion and cracking down on the ubiquitous “squeegee men” who menaced city drivers.
The theory was that if you clamped down on small offenses, it would send a signal to petty criminals that there is zero tolerance and this, in turn, would deter bigger crimes. Also, by arresting low-level offenders, you would be ridding the streets of criminals who might be wanted for other crimes. This aggressive style of policing was accompanied by an increasing use of “stop and frisk,” which reached its peak in the last few years of the Bloomberg administration.
Now the pendulum has begun to swing back. In the aftermath of the grand jury’s controversial non-indictment in the Eric Garner case last week, people are questioning the wisdom of arresting a man whose only crime was selling loose cigarettes on a street corner. The public’s appetite for “Broken Windows” policing has reached a tipping point. Society is fed up with aggressive policing that can lead to the deaths of unarmed men.
And so it seems that we will now enter an era where our police will be more guarded and will likely wear cameras that will record their interactions with people. This technology will make things more transparent.
If “Broken Windows” is abandoned (and if it is, it’s unlikely to happen with a press release or a major pronouncement) it will end an era of policing in New York in which our cops played offense rather than defense. If we are now entering a period of kinder and gentler policing, we will see if the dramatic decrease in major crime in New York has gained enough traction that we no longer need a constantly vigilant police force.
It will take some time for New York to be able to judge the outcome of this new crime-fighting strategy. We will only know after 12 to 18 months whether crime rates will start to rise and whether it was “Broken Windows” policing that kept the crime rate so low for so long.
In the meantime, let us pray that our mayor and police commissioner and the whole NYPD continue to maintain order and peace. I lived through the 1970s and 1980s in New York and anyone else who remembers what life was like in those dangerous decades will agree that we cannot go backwards in time, no matter what the pendulum of history decrees.
Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.