Since my book City of Disorder came out in 2008, I've argued consistently that the city is over relying on policing to deal with problems like homelessness, mental illness, graffiti, and prostitution. While each of these can be sources of disorder that need to be addressed, there is no evidence that policing is the best solution to these problems--just the opposite. By turning Rikers Island onto one of the country’s largest homeless shelters and mental health facilities, we are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars a year that could be used to provide much cheaper treatment and housing. A single bed at Rikers Island cost $168,000 a year to operate.
The graffiti problem on the subways was solved by investing in infrastructure and maintenance not policing. Mayor Koch tried using policing to solve that problem and it was a well-documented failure. Using the police costs more money and is rarely effective. There are alternatives. Squeegee men were driven out of Midtown Manhattan by putting them in Rikers Island, but there is no evidence that did anything to reduce felonies there or anywhere else. Getting rid of subway performers may make some feel more comfortable but it has nothing to do with serious crime and will primarily serve to criminalize and alienate these young people.
I've also written about the important work done by community based youth anti violence organizations like Man Up and SOS Crown Heights that work to win the trust of young people and intervene in their lives in meaningful positive ways to reduce gang affiliation and the use of violence on the streets. The research on these groups is mixed but much more promising than the research associated with using Broken Windows policing to fight serious crime. The mayor knows these programs have promise and has invested in them in this year's budget, unlike his predecessor. They are not a panacea, but they are more cost effective and less destructive than Broken Windows policing.
While we should always be cautious of extrapolating too much from a single case (a common journalistic method), this was no isolated incident. Police use force against people suspected of minor crimes on a daily basis. Fortunately, it rarely results in death. Unfortunately, it is only rarely video taped. Prior to Eric Garner's death I collected several video tapes of Broken Windows enforcement gone wrong, which I describe in my Daily News Opinion piece. In just the last week, two other very troubling cases have emerged: In the first a young man is stopped by police for suspicion of public marijuana possession in front of his home, and ends up getting stomped in the head by an officer while in custody. In the second a 7 months pregnant woman is assaulted by an officer who is upset because she is grilling on the sidewalk in front of her home. In both cases these were police initiated contacts with African Americans.
Finally, the war on marijuana in New York has been a devastating failure by any measure. Despite over a decade of arrests in the tens of thousands a year, marijuana remains universally available to anyone who wants it. The only impacts have been negative, through the criminalization of young people of color. There is almost never any enforcement of marijuana laws in white communities. It is used exclusively as a proactive policing tactic in minority communities and has served to push literally hundreds of thousands of young people of color into the criminal justice system for no legitimate reason. I fully stand by my claims that Broken Windows policing has gone too far and is inconsistent with a political program of reducing inequality.
And just to be clear I have not called for Bratton's resignation. In fact, he might be particularly well suited to overseeing a dialing back of these policies.