NYPD Watchdog: Broken Windows Policing Doesn't Work

NYPD Watchdog: Broken Windows Policing Doesn't Work
Michael Appleton/ Mayoral Photography Office

An 88-page report released today by the city's independent watchdog that oversees the NYPD found that the department’s controversial “Broken Windows” policing strategy not only is racially discriminatory, but also has no impact on serious crime.

The conclusions of the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD undermine the cornerstone of Commissioner Bill Bratton’s approach to crime reduction — a strategy that has held sway in the city and far beyond since the early 1990s — and directly contradict a similar study released by the department itself in 2015.

“This is the first ever independent, data-driven investigation into the relationship, over time, of quality-of-life enforcement and felony crime,” Mark Peters, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation, said in a press release. (The Office of the Inspector General is within the DOI.) “The results of our investigation call into question some long-held assumptions about the systemic impact of certain tactics and therefore provide a starting point for the NYPD to more fully employ statistical analysis to evaluate these tactics.”

The thinking behind Broken Windows policing has always rested on an assumption that strict enforcement of low-level crimes like public drinking and urination would help drive down more serious crimes like robbery and murder.

But the OIG’s report found that serious felony complaints have declined or remained steady across the city in the past five years, hovering at about 4 violent complaints per 10,000 residents, even as enforcement of low-level offenses has plummeted, from 386,094 summonses in 2010 to 258,008 in 2015. 

This chart shows the relationship between quality-of-life enforcement, in the form of low-level criminal summonses, and the incidence of violent crime.
This chart shows the relationship between quality-of-life enforcement, in the form of low-level criminal summonses, and the incidence of violent crime.
Source: OIG Report

Beyond the apparent ineffectiveness of the NYPD's strategy, the report also found wide disparities in where and how "quality of life" enforcement is carried out; summonses for low-level offenses are concentrated in precincts with a relatively high proportion of black and Hispanic residents, public housing residents, and young men ages fifteen to twenty years old.

While the findings clearly undermine the NYPD's claims about its methods, the report also makes a baffling distinction between what it calls “quality of life enforcement” as compared to “quality of life policing” (emphasis added). The OIG says its report is focused on the former and doesn’t attempt to offer any findings about the latter, nor about the Broken Windows approach writ large. 

“This Report did not make findings regarding quality-of-life policing or the much broader concept of the 'Broken Windows' policing strategy,” the report says.

The OIG's conclusions will come as no surprise to police reform advocates, who have made similar arguments for years.

In a statement, Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, said the report "makes Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton’s continued championing of policing policy based on this conservative, race and bias-based ideology that harms Black, Latino, homeless, low-income, immigrant, and LGBTQ New Yorkers all the more disgraceful and perplexing."

Mayor de Blasio has long supported Commissioner Bratton's reliance on Broken Windows.

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"I’ve said very clearly that I believe in the Broken Windows theory of policing," the mayor told a group of reporters in 2014. One reporter asked him whether the tactic "targets people of color.... You don’t see it that way?"

"No, I don't," the mayor replied.

You can read the entire report below. Here are some key findings as detailed by the OIG:

  • Between 2010 and 2015 there was a dramatic decline in quality-of-life enforcement with no increase in felony crime. In fact, felony crime, with a few exceptions, declined along with quality-of-life enforcement, meaning OIG-NYPD found no evidence to suggest that crime control can be directly attributed to issuing quality-of-life summonses and making misdemeanor arrests.

  • A deeper analysis of specific summons/misdemeanor arrest categories over time in specific geographic areas showed little-to-no correlation between C-summons activity and felony crime, meaning broad generalizations about quality-of-life summonses as a panacea are not supported by the empirical evidence in OIG-NYPD’s analysis.

  • Quality-of-life enforcement is not evenly distributed across the City. In 2015, the distribution of quality-of-life enforcement activity in New York City was concentrated in precincts with high proportions of black and Hispanic residents, New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents, and males aged 15–20, based on data from the NYPD and the United States Census. Conversely, precincts with higher proportions of white residents had lower rates of quality-of-life enforcement. In many, but not all, instances, the rates of enforcement remained high even after adjusting for crime rates.

OIG Quality of Life Policing Report — June 2016



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