The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does New York City’s ‘broken windows’ policing work? New report says no.

New York City police officials talk with foreign visitors during a tour of a New York police department’s headquarters this month. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)
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For more than 30 years, activists, experts and police chiefs have been divided over the New York City Police Department’s “broken windows” method of policing. The idea — championed by Bill Bratton during his first and current tenures as New York’s police commissioner — is that cracking down on petty crimes like vandalism and public urination generates an atmosphere of lawfulness that then prevents more serious crime.

Now that debate is playing out within Bratton’s own NYPD with warring reports. The latest, released Wednesday by NYPD’s watchdog inspector general, finds no evidence that huge crack-downs on low-level “quality-of-life” incidents decrease felony crimes.

That study directly contradicts a report by Bratton’s NYPD last year that claims the exact opposite — that quality-of-life policing was responsible for fewer felony crimes in New York.

Wednesday’s report — by DOI Commissioner Mark Peters and NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure — takes direct aim at the “broken windows” policy that Bratton famously began pushing in the 1990s. Their report notes the cost of that policy “in police time, in an increase of the number of people brought into the criminal justice system and, at times, in a fraying of the relationship between the police and the communities they serve.”

[READ: ‘Broken windows’ boosters are giving the idea too much credit]

For instance, the report found that such crack-downs on small crimes disproportionately happened in precincts with large numbers of black and Hispanic residents, while precincts with large percentages of white residents were much less affected.

And yet, the report notes, when the NYPD decreased itsr quality-of-life policing from 2010 to 2015, the number of felony crimes kept dropping, suggesting that there wasn’t a causal relationship between the two.

The data showed that felony crime didn’t increase between 2010 and 2015 and in many cases decreased — at the same time that the number of quality-of-life summonses issued declined significantly.

“Broad generalizations about quality-of-life summonses as a panacea are not supported by empirical evidence,” the inspector general’s review said.

The new report comes during a period when city officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio are pulling back from treating “broken windows” issues as crimes. This month, the city passed a series of bills that make such offenses, like public urination and alcohol, civil rather than criminal matters.