With Baltimore Unrest, More Debate Over 'Broken Windows' Policing Critics are targeting New York's policing theory, which aims to crack down on minor offenses. But it's also praised for reducing the crime rate.
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With Baltimore Unrest, More Debate Over 'Broken Windows' Policing

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With Baltimore Unrest, More Debate Over 'Broken Windows' Policing

With Baltimore Unrest, More Debate Over 'Broken Windows' Policing

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Police departments across the country are under pressure to rethink their most aggressive tactics - not just flashpoints like Ferguson and Baltimore. The nation's largest police department is among those facing growing scrutiny. The New York Police Department is now on the defensive about its long-standing approach known as broken windows policing. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Simply put, broken windows is the idea that police should aggressively crack down on low-level offenses to stop bigger crimes from happening, and it's been copied all over the country. But critics in New York say broken windows needs fixing. Here's City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

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MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Our goal is a simple one - make the system more just. Jumping a turnstile at 16 should not mark you for the rest of your life.

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ROSE: Detractors say far too many New Yorkers, mostly poor and mostly people of color, are arrested or ticketed for so-called quality-of-life crimes like riding a bike on the sidewalk, drinking on the street, jumping a subway turnstile or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

FRANDY AUGUST: I received a fine for staying in the park late, which I didn't know.

ROSE: Frandy August got a summons to appear in court just for hanging out in a park near his home him in Brooklyn an hour after it closed at 6 p.m.

AUGUST: I saw the judge, and he was like - case dismissed because it was not that late.

ROSE: August's case was quickly dismissed, but he had to go to a special court in Manhattan and appear before a judge who hears lots of quality-of-life cases. Most of these cases get dismissed or reduced to a small fine.

DRE FEARON: It's focusing on minor things instead of solving major problems.

ROSE: Dre Fearon was slapped with a $50 fine for possession of marijuana. He does not think broken windows is working.

FEARON: It probably would stop you from riding a bike on the sidewalk for a little while. That's probably it - or, like, leaving your car from running while you're going to store, I guess. But are those criminal activities? If you're talking about criminal activity, this isn't really making a difference with that. I would say it's more harassing people.

ROSE: But defenders of broken windows policing say the statistics are on their side, including the man who's largely responsible for making the approach famous in New York some 20 years ago, the city's police commissioner, William Bratton.

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WILLIAM BRATTON: I can assure you that quality-of-life policing will continue and continue very assertively in this city. It's what made this city safe in the first place.

ROSE: Major crime of all kinds is down almost 80 percent in New York since the bad old days of the 1990s, during Bratton's first tour as police commissioner. Exactly why crime dropped so much is a matter of debate. Still, Heather Mac Donald at the conservative Manhattan Institute thinks broken windows is a big reason.

HEATHER MAC DONALD: The rap against the police used to be that they ignored community requests for assistance in minority neighborhoods. The NYPD is now focused like a laser beam both on where violent crime is happening and where people want help.

ROSE: The NYPD says most quality-of-life enforcement is driven by community requests for help, but critics complain that police are much more likely to be aggressive in poor minority neighborhoods. Activists like Mark Winston Griffith of the Brooklyn Movement Center say that drives a wedge between the people and the police.

MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH: You know, we all want a better quality of life. What we're saying is the approach to it, the tactics that are used to arrive at that, are overly aggressive and are ultimately, on some level, counterproductive to the very goals you're trying to achieve.

ROSE: Part of the concern is that misdemeanor arrests and summonses can turn into real jail time for people who can't afford bail or don't bother to show up in court at all. The New York City Council is now looking at two proposals to decriminalize some minor offenses. The mayor and police commissioner have been getting more and more questions recently about broken windows. Commissioner Bratton has answered them this way.

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BRATTON: The mayor and I have committed to working on the continuing evolution of broken windows quality-of-life policing. It works. It's essential, and it will be continued here in New York City - modified, certainly.

ROSE: Bratton says he's open to some revisions of the city's broken windows philosophy, including more warnings for first-time offenders. But his larger message seems to be, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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