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Listen to Community Voices

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Commissioner Bratton is fond of quoting Sir Robert Peel, founder of London’s Metropolitan Police, the agency credited with being the Western world’s first modern police force. Often unspoken is the fact that many of the English resisted the establishment of a formal, government-run police department. The reasons they resisted are strikingly similar to current complaints about big-city policing today—especially within New York. In Peel’s time, the idea of a police force was often seen “as a challenge to the liberties of England,” and a device for controlling the poor. The expense and lack of accountability of such a force were two other common complaints.

CUNY professors and others have written convincingly about the public harm associated with the so-called broken windows policing strategy, in writings with titles such as “Broken Lives from Broken Windows” (Babe Howell, CUNY Law) or “Fixing Broken Windows or Fracturing Fragile Relationships?” (Eugene O’Donnell, John Jay College). But in a recent article in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, William Bratton and George Kelling insist that broken windows policing is necessary. They take this stance even though empirical support for the claim that attention to minor offenses directly leads to reductions in serious crime is equivocal at best, and despite clear evidence that use of this enforcement approach is disproportionately experienced by young Black and Latino males, which draws them into the criminal justice system and diminishes their already unequal life chances. While the article attempts to distinguish broken windows policing from the aggressive use of stop-and-frisk, both approaches have been deployed in ways that target the same neighborhoods and groups – the poor and people of color –and despite claims of crime reduction, both have had harmful effects on those who are targeted.

The deaths of Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham and Akai Gurley, among others, all point to the fact that policing in New York City has gone terribly awry. Unarmed residents have repeatedly died at the hands of the police. The incidents in which they lost their lives involved things as minor as allegedly selling loose cigarettes or small amounts of marijuana ‒ or simply walking in the stairwell of a housing project.

Rather than conceding that these occurrences are evidence of a serious problem, the head of the police officers’ union berates those who criticize the police conduct that led to these results, dismissing their concerns as “anti-police rhetoric.” In this view, the lesson from Eric Garner’s death is that New Yorkers shouldn’t resist arrest – not that officers shouldn’t use excessive force to make arrests. Similarly, rather than recognize that the policed public has a right to complain about the policing service they receive, the message is that the public should support police actions no matter what.

Media outlets embolden this stance when they state that the Mayor is in trouble with the police for “permitting protests” against the failed criminal prosecution of the offending officers – when in fact protesting is a right bestowed by the federal constitution.

The irony in all of this is that the current state of police-community relations was foreseen by critics in 1829 when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed in a nation thousands of miles away. These growing problems have led to a situation where neither civilians nor police officers are safe. Rather than sticking doggedly to a policing approach based on a favored theory, the police department needs to listen to the voices of all New Yorkers, beyond just the favored four – business owners, property owners, church-goers, and the employed – that are often mentioned by police officials when they say they are working with and listening to “the community.”

Soon after he was appointed, Commissioner Bratton established an office of collaborative policing. Though its goals were not clearly explained, most of us thought the collaborations would be between the police department and the many different communities that make up the city and that it meant that those communities would have input into how the city would be policed. Rather than continuing to dictate that broken windows policing is the public safety approach for New York City, now is the time for meaningful community collaboration – specifically with those who are most directly affected by policing practices.

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Delores Jones-Brown is a professor of law and police science at John Jay College. A former assistant prosecutor, she is the founding director of John Jay’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice. She is co-editor of Policing and Minority Communities: Bridging the Gap.

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Union Week December 5-9, 2022