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What both sides got wrong about the NYPD slowdown

In the final weeks of 2014, New York Police Department officers began a policing "slowdown" — dramatically ratcheting down low-level arrests, summonses and traffic tickets after the murder of two on-duty police officers in Brooklyn. Now, the slowdown appears to be over: arrests from last week aren't quite to the same level they were in 2014, but they've nearly doubled since the week before. And parking tickets quintupled from the first week of 2015 to the second week.

This isn't because police officers have given up on making a statement about their importance to the city — the main purpose of the slowdown. It's because management, from commanders down to precinct chiefs — led by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton — are ordering police to get back to work.

According to police union sources who spoke to the New York Post, commanders carried out Bratton's directive by ordering every precinct to collect activity sheets tracking how many arrests each officer makes and how many summonses he writes for low-level crimes like public urination over the course of his shift. Some managers reportedly went as far as threatening officers for withholding lunch breaks if they didn't meet quotas and ordering officers to set up a checkpoint at a Queens intersection to nab people for not wearing seatbelts.

bill bratton

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is a true believer in the "broken windows" strategy. (Spencer Pratt/Getty)

This focus on low-level criminal summonses and traffic citations is in line with the strategy that Bratton has been advocating for decades: protecting public order by prosecuting minor crimes. But it fails to get at the real reason why the slowdown wasn't good policing.

A return to broken windows

Part of the reason lieutenants are emphasizing traffic citations and low-level summonses is that they want to stop losing revenue. The NYPD collects $518 million a year in traffic tickets alone; that means they've easily lost tens of millions of dollars since the slowdown started. And summonses also bring revenue to the city, since offenders are usually fined rather than getting hit with jail time.

But NYPD leadership isn't just being cynical about this. Aggressively enforcing quality-of-life violations, like urination, vandalism and public drinking, is the centerpiece of the NYPD's strategy, known as "broken windows." Bratton is closely associated with broken windows: he was in charge of implementing the tactic in New York in the 1990s, during his first stint as commissioner. He believes that policing quality-of-life violations deters more serious crimes by making it clear to would-be criminals that residents and police actually care about the neighborhoods they live in. He also believes that it's what law-abiding New Yorkers actually want to see: police restoring order in their communities and making them nicer places to live.

graffiti broken windows policing

(Spencer Platt/Getty)

So if Bratton's philosophy is that the biggest threat to community safety is exactly the low-level offenses that police officers were laying off enforcing over the last few weeks, it makes sense that it is where lieutenants would focus energies to restore order to the force.

The evidence that broken windows works is mixed. Some studies do show that aggressive policing helps reduce crime; others show that harassing residents can actually increase crime.

It's clear that the strategy has contributed to tensions in police-community relations — especially in New York. While broken windows and stop-and-frisk are different policies, they've had similar effects: making young men of color in New York feel that they're being targeted by police, and that they're liable to be made criminals just for existing in public.

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Bratton's association with broken-windows has made him a target of anti-police protesters. (Spencer Pratt/Getty)

The death of Eric Garner after he was put in a chokehold by NYPD officers for selling loose cigarettes was a flashpoint for a reason: in the video of Garner's encounter with police, he can be heard saying, "Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today."

But at the same time, there is substantial public support for police going after quality-of-life violations: a Quinnipiac poll from August 2014, after Garner's death, showed that majorities of whites, African Americans, and Hispanics all supported broken-windows policing.

Furthermore, Bratton claims that the NYPD is implementing broken windows mostly in the neighborhoods where residents care most about quality-of-life offenses. In a winter 2015 article for the conservative City Journal, he wrote that neighborhoods that make the most 911 and 311 calls about quality-of-life offenses are the neighborhoods where the most broken windows arrests are made. Neighborhoods that don't make many calls to 911 and 311 about quality of life, meanwhile, don't get as much broken windows enforcement. At least as described by Bratton, broken windows isn't a simple matter of police harassing residents; it's police harassing some residents at the wish of other residents.

Withdrawing from communities isn't ideal either

The slowdown, though, had nothing to do with what residents wanted. It was motivated by the feeling that police officers weren't safe when they were out in the communities they served, and therefore needed to cut down contact with residents to the bare minimum to protect their own lives.

There's evidence that after something happens that makes police feel publicly attacked (like an "anti-police" judicial verdict), police officers react by withdrawing from more "proactive" community policing efforts, and focusing on "reactive" policing that is only responding to crimes that have already occurred. Studies suggest that shifting away from "proactive" policing is associated with police feeling more alienated from, and negatively toward, members of the community.

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Police turning their backs on the community isn't a good solution. (Joe Marino/NY Daily News via Getty)

That's not a good thing — in fact, it's exactly the sort of us-vs.-them mentality that caused much of the tension between residents and police to begin with. When police feel that they're constantly at risk from members of the community, they're more likely to think that any given civilian they stop for selling loose cigarettes, or for walking in the middle of the street, is going to kill them. And feeling under threat (as long as another reasonable police officer would have felt the threat was justified) is all it takes for an officer to be legally justified in using lethal force first.

Plenty of commentators claimed that the slowdown was the best thing the NYPD could possibly do for communities. But abandoning communities doesn't actually serve them. Had the shutdown gone on for longer, it probably would have entrenched the attitudes that encouraged police violence to begin with.

The radical option the NYPD ignored: be present without harassing people

Now, it appears that the NYPD is returning to its usual policy: interacting with residents, but mostly by calling them out for quality-of-life violations. That's certainly how Bratton believes the NYPD can keep New York safe. But both the slowdown policy and the aggressive "speedup" going on now aren't effective ways to reduce crime without antagonizing communities.

In fact, evidence suggests the most important thing police can do to reduce crime is to be physically present in neighborhoods — not whizzing by in squad cars, but out on the street interacting with residents. That's the thesis of "hotspot policing," a more recent trend in policing strategy.

hotspot policing

Columbia, Maryland, was an early adopter of "hotspot policing." (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty)

The premise of "hotspot policing" is that when police focus their efforts on places — not people — who are most susceptible to crime, they're most able to deter criminals from operating out in the open. (You'd think that criminals would simply shift their bases of operations, but that's not what happens.)

What makes hotspot policing work, according to a series of studies from criminologists and case studies from police departments like Minneapolis, is police being out of their cars and physically in neighborhoods alongside residents for a certain amount of time. To be most effective, police need to engage with residents in friendly ways, like cleaning up graffiti, rather than writing up the people who painted it. When both of those conditions are met, crime doesn't just go down when police are around, or even right after they leave — a month of regular hotspot policing can reduce crime in the area for weeks afterward.

It isn't a radical idea: just police being present in a neighborhood for a little while without making a point of writing up any summonses. But it's the one possibility that neither the NYPD cops who engaged in the shutdown, nor the lieutenants who are pushing them to get back to work, seem to be considering.

CLARIFICATION: This article originally stated that "feeling under threat is all it takes for an officer to be legally justified in using lethal force." That's an oversimplification of the legal standard at play, which has been more fully and accurately explored in other Vox pieces about when police can legally kill civilians. The sentence has been amended to better reflect the legal standard.