The Other Broken Windows Fallacy

The NYPD is accused of under-reporting serious crimes while manufacturing petty ones.


One of the central themes of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire was the pressure politicians put on police brass, who then apply it to the department's middle management, to generate PR-friendly statistics about lowering crime and increasing arrests. The show, based in part on co-creator Ed Burns' experience as a narcotics cop at the Baltimore Police Department, was a running narration of the chasm between what politicians and the public consider to be effective crime fighting techniques and what measures actually make cities safer.

So a special police unit working on a long term project to bring down brutally violent rival drug dealers gets scrapped for buy-and-busts on low-level peddlers. In terms of spinnable statistics, 50 street-level arrests look better than the takedown of a single major player. When new mayor Tommy Carcetti takes office, the acting police chief orders mass arrests for petty crimes such as vagrancy and open container violations. The crackdown poisons police-community relations, but the chief hopes they'll endear him to his new boss.

Those very themes are now playing out in real-life New York City. Last month, a scandal rocked the city's vaunted COMPSTAT program, the data-driven crime-tracking system championed by former Police Chief William Bratton and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. COMPSTAT is widely credited for bringing down the Big Apple's crime rate, and has since been adopted by other cities.

But according to a survey of high-ranking NYPD retirees conducted by Long Island's Molloy College, police commanders faced heavy pressure from higher-ups to to reduce felonies to misdemeanors—or in some cases to not report crimes at all—in order to make the numbers look prettier. An officer from Brooklyn's 81st Precinct then came forward to complain about constant pressure from commanders to downgrade felonies, talk victims out of filing reports, and even simply refuse to take reports at all. Much of this was predicted by COMPSTAT critics. Even data-heavy crime tracking, it turns out, can fall prey to public choice theory.

Of course you can't fake homicides, and there's no question that both New York's murder rate and its overall crime rate have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s. But there's still fierce debate about why. Giuliani and his supporters credit the combination of COMPSTAT and the "broken windows" theory of crime fighting popularized by law-and-order conservative James Wilson. Under broken windows, by cracking down on petty crime, you create a culture of order and law-abiding behavior that filters up to prevent major crimes as well. So you start making arrests for graffiti, turnstyle-jumping, vagrancy, and the like, giving patrol officers broad powers to stop people and make arrests. Critics of broken windows counter, among other arguments, that many big cities that didn't adopt the policy, including San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Houston, had more significant decreases in the homicide rate over about the same period.

Whatever the causes and effects, the political reality is that the crime rate will never drop to zero, and even after a gaudy 15-year drop, no mayor wants to be in office when crime inches up again, and no high-ranking police commander wants to be the one to give Hizzoner the bad news. All the incentives in the age-old push-pull between safety and civil liberties nudge politicians to err on the side of safety over liberty, in this case even when it's far from clear that the COMPSTAT/broken windows combination is the reason New York is safer.

And so in the same month the COMPSTAT study came out, a Bronx police officer named Adil Polanco came forward to tell New York's WABC that NYPD cops face explicit arrest and citation quotas. "I'm not going to keep arresting innocent people, I'm not going to keep searching people for no reason, I'm not going to keep writing people for no reason, I'm tired of this," Polanco told the TV station. "Our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them."

Polanco says he was told to issue at least 20 summonses and make one arrest each month. WABC also obtained a recording of a supervisor that appears to support Polanco's allegations. "If you think 1 and 20 is breaking your balls, guess what you're going to be doing. You're gong to be doing a lot more, a lot more than what they're saying," the supervisor says. In another, he says, "Next week, 25 &1, 35 & 1, and until you decide to quit this job to go to work at a Pizza Hut, this is what you're going to be doing till then." Polanco says the quotas cause officers to arrest and jail people who haven't committed any crime. Most are released the next day without charges.

The data back up Polanco's allegations. Last year, NYPD "stopped and frisked" more citizens than in any year since the department began keeping statistics. ("Stop and frisk" refers to the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which allows police to stop, question, and frisk citizens in public without probable cause.) A record 575,000 people were stopped by New York police in 2009, an 8 percent increase over 2008, also a record year. More than half of those stopped in 2009 were also frisked. Nearly 90 percent were black or Latino.

That massive increase in stop-and-frisk operations has also led to an astronomical increase in marijuana arrests, from just 900 in 1993 to more than 40,000 in 2008. Possession of a small amount of marijuana in New York for personal use is not a criminal infraction (it's a fineable offense, akin to jaywalking), but displaying pot in public is; it's an arrestable misdemeanor. According to a 2008 New York Civil Liberties Union report written by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, New York cops engaging in stop-and-frisks will commonly ask the suspect to empty his pockets. If he's carrying pot, his non-criminal possession of marijuana becomes the arrestable offense of displaying the marijuana in public.

So to summarize, we now have reports that New York City police brass have been pressuring rank-and-file cops to downgrade or bury actual thefts, robberies, and assaults committed against New Yorkers. At the same time, we also now have accusations and credible data suggesting politicians and brass are encouraging the same rank-and-file cops to harass New Yorkers who have committed no crime at all, or have been tricked into committing a consensual crime they never intended.

Burying major crimes with real victims. Inventing petty crimes with no victims. The debate over broken windows theory and COMPSTAT crime fighting won't be resolved any time soon. But even setting aside the obvious concerns over civil liberties and police-community relations in this story, this seems like an improbable formula for a safer city.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.