Bill "broken windows" Bratton returns to old tricks

The new NYPD chief is focusing on petty crime, targeting the poor on the subway, with data on his side

Published March 6, 2014 5:16PM (EST)

New York's returning police commissioner is reportedly relying on his trademark style of policing policy, developed in his years as Mayor Giuliani's top cop. Bratton, who returned to the commissioner post under new Mayor Bill de Blasio, is enacting "broken windows" theory policing. Focusing on minor violations and particularly targeting peddlers and panhandlers on the subway, once again Bratton's "tough-on-crime" approach means tough on the poor.

As the New York Times reported Thursday, under Bratton's first two months of leadership this year, "arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways have more than tripled over the same period last year." Similarly "police statistics also indicate a noticeable spike in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments ... [and] arrests for violations — a category of infractions that includes drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk — has increased by more than 21 percent."

Meanwhile, as Bratton had promised, the number of suspicionless stop-and-frisks has dropped significantly. As the Times noted, "In the transit system so far this year, police officers recorded making 353 stops for behavior deemed suspicious, compared with 5,983 last year."

Certainly a drop in stop-and-frisks is a welcome change. However, if it has simply been replaced by arresting more and more New Yorkers for petty crimes regularly reflective of hard economic circumstance -- like busking and begging -- or drinking in public, then the NYPD are no less a bane for New York's poorest.

Bratton used his decades-old "broken windows" logic in explaining his plan to hit hard at low-level crime. He argued that the approach maintains order and can lead to the capture of career criminals. But there is debate as to whether the participation in minor illegal activities escalates into a life of serious or violent crime. (Statistics, regularly trotted out by Bratton or his ilk, rely on loose contiguity and have no grounds as causal proofs.) Meanwhile, the impact of an arrest record for a low-level offense is provably ruinous to an individual (in terms of seeking work, housing and more).

And to be sure, if one of the evils of stop-and-frisk has been its prefigurative approach to crime -- targeting potential criminals based often on troubling assumptions about race and class, rather than targeting crime -- then Bratton's focus on low-level crime carries the same problem. "If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of the big things,” Bratton said this week. The assumption then is that peddlers and panhandlers will become something "worse"; the dark side of predictive policing has gone nowhere.

Bratton is once again relying on his other trademark: stats. It was Bratton who in 1994 implemented CompStat, a program for decreasing crime through data-driven analysis that is now the sin qua none of municipal policing. And while former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly kept his stats close to his chest, Bratton is already touting his statistical transparency. As the New York Times noted on the latest arrest figures, "the availability of such statistics for public review represents a degree of transparency that did not exist under the previous police commissioner."

With data and the false promise of its neutrality on his side, Bratton is able to boast a drop in crime while forgoing the crucial nuances of the lives behind the numbers. As Ingrid Burrington has commented on Bratton's data-driven modus operandi, "data methodology and the data analysis are designed to work against the people it claims to protect. The broken windows theory is a blunt instrument for understanding nuanced problems."

Sure, more arrests for criminal activity and fewer loathed stop-and-frisks may sound like an improving state of affairs. But if New York's poor still bear the cold brunt of New York policing, largely for the crime of their socioeconomic trappings, then we have not escaped the problem of discriminatory policing.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

MORE FROM Natasha Lennard