In the fall of 1972, New York City transit police were negotiating a new employment contract — and they were not happy with city leadership. Contract negotiations with their department’s commissioner, William J. Ronan, were stalled. The dispute centered on typical labor gripes. Among other concessions, the officers wanted more vacation time and a bump in pay, something to bring the compensation of transit officers — then part of a separate department — more in line with that of officers in the NYPD proper.
They needed something dramatic to put pressure on Ronan and Mayor John Lindsay, something that would make the people of the city take notice of their demands. So they hit on a novel idea.
The transit policeman’s union said yesterday its men would cover the city subway “with a blanket of summonses” as part of their rule-book work slowdown against the Transit Authority. Summonses will be handed to anyone who drops a gum wrapper, leaves a newspaper, smokes, spits or drops food or liquid …
–New York Times, Oct. 24, 1972
The transit police at that time thought the best way to get some attention for their campaign was to “harass” citizens — as the Times characterized their actions at the time — by burying them in a blizzard of summons slips for minor infractions.
John Maye, then the head of the Transit Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, wanted the people of the city to know exactly whom to thank when they were handed those ridiculous tickets: “I have told the men that when they hand out a summons that it is being given courtesy of Mayor Lindsay,” he told the Times.
It wasn’t the first time cops in New York had cracked down on minor crimes to make a point. The now-defunct Long Island State Parkway Police did something similar in 1968, issuing speeding and other traffic tickets with a vengeance, and deliberately tying up traffic in their own contract dispute.
It’s a lesson from history that provides something of an ironic window into our own time. Today, New Yorkers again find themselves in the midst of a police protest, but this time the tactics are exactly reversed.
As tensions build between the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re in the midst of a work slowdown by the city’s police force. The slowdown has not been officially endorsed by the city’s officer unions. But last week, the Post reported that summons rates had fallen by 94 percent over their levels last year; yesterday, the Times reported that the trend continued into this week; only 347 criminal summonses were issued this year, compared to 4,077 for the same period last year.
The strategy used in 1968 — stepping up enforcement of minor crimes — would likely go unnoticed today.
“I say this not to be tongue-in-cheek,” says Robert Gangi, president of the Police Reform Organizing Project, “but it would be hard to imagine how they could issue more tickets than they already do…In effect, ‘broken windows’ has removed that weapon from their tool chest.”
Since the mid 1990s, the NYPD and many departments across the country have explicitly emphasized the enforcement of minor infractions, part of the “broken windows” approach to policing that has held sway for the past few decades. What was viewed in 1972 as an aggressive act of retaliation — even harassment — is now the day-to-day strategy of the NYPD.
Not everyone agrees with the broken-windows school of police work, so the NYPD’s apparent refusal to issue summonses and make arrests for minor crimes has come as welcome news in some quarters.
“We at PROP are, at this point, not concerned about the work stoppage,” Gangi says. “There have been no reports of an uptick in crime, and what the officers have stopped doing has been to stop ticketing people for minor crimes,” which is exactly what they’ve been asking for.
A number of commentators have pointed out that the unplanned experiment in broken-windows “reform” could end up proving the case civil-liberties groups have been making all along — that broken windows does little to combat crime and much to alienate the mostly low-income minority neighborhoods that bear the brunt of its effects.
Of course, the early Seventies weren’t exactly a golden era for New York policing. Just a year before the transit police work action, NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico went public with his story of pervasive corruption within the force. And crime was also a far bigger problem in those days. Even so, history can be instructive — even when it’s not repeated.