New York Police and Broken Windows Policing

The New York police are taking part in a job action. Numbers of arrests have dropped considerably over the last couple of weeks.

Possibly the police believe that serious crime will increase, giving them negotiating leverage.


Broken Windows Policing

New York has followed the Broken Windows model of policing for some years. The theory behind Broken Windows is that if you let small stuff happen, it will morph into major crimes. Note that this is a simplistic explanation, I strongly recommend you follow the link. I also recommend reading the original article which appeared in Atlantic on the theory of Broken Windows policing.

New York adopted the Broken Window theory of policing in 1993. Since then crime has dropped dramatically. The same has happened in other jurisdictions.

So Broken Windows Works?

Crime has dropped in New York City. But is Broken Windows Policing responsible for the drop?

We don’t know. While many believe that Broken Windows Policing is responsible for the crime rate drop, there are other factors which may have had an impact:

  1. The drop in Crack Cocaine use.
  2. The phase out of Tetraethyl Lead from gasoline 1 2 3 4 5
  3. Increased prosperity and reduced poverty
  4. Better crime fighting tools (DNA testing, computerized records, etc.)

Maybe the answer is all of the above.

One of the theorists behind Broken Windows Policing says that New York has been doing it wrong. If New York has been doing it wrong, why has the crime rate dropped? Another issue is that according to a retired NYC police officer, police themselves aren’t happy with how broken windows policing is being handled.

There has also been confusion between Zero Tolerance Policing and Broken Windows Policing. Zero Tolerance advocates arrest of anyone committing any crime, whereas Broken Windows Policing is aimed at improving the quality of life of all citizens. High arrest numbers benefit the city budget through fines, but lower the quality of life of those who pay the fines.

At present we don’t know for certain if Broken Windows as attempted in New York (which seems closer to Zero Tolerance) is the reason for the drop in violent crime. It is possible that other factors have also had an impact. Further scholarly research is indicated.

What if Violent Crime Rates remain low during the job action?

That would be very interesting. While cities rely to a certain extent on the revenues from fines, there are also costs involved.

  1. Reduction of the number of courts and staff needed
  2. No need to collect fines
  3. Reduction in the need for incarceration of those who can’t or won’t pay the fines
  4. Reduction in the number of peace officers required

Then there’s the money which is now being spent on consumer goods by those who aren’t paying the fines. Exactly how this would play out would require an economist, which I am not.

The people of New York could end up saving money by reducing the size of the police, courts, etc. We don’t know.

If crime rates remained low, it would solidly indicate that the police have had less of an impact than most people believe.

But would this work?

As Kelling and Coles observed, Quality of Life issues are a major driver towards citizens feeling safe in their cities. If Quality of Life issues could be assured with a lower number of peace officers, then yes, it could work.

There’s also the issue of the demonstrations which started with the death of Eric Garner. Those demonstrations indicate that a significant portion of the population is not happy with the status quo. If the officer who wrote the op-ed in the New York Times is correct, police aren’t happy either. And the job action indicates that police are unhappy with the police commissioner and the mayor.

When so many people are unhappy, things need to change.

The question is how.


Wayne Borean

Friday January 9, 2015


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