Police Abuse

Study: NYPD Slowdown in Petty Law Enforcement Saw Reduction in Major Crimes Complaints

Evidence against broken windows policing.


André Gustavo Stumpf

A new study has found that during the 2014–15 NYPD work slowdown, when New York police officers refused to make unnecessary arrests or engage in other sorts of "proactive policing," major crimes reports fell.


This shouldn't be surprising to readers of Reason. There was no reason to think a reduction in unnecessary policing would increase serious crime. Preliminary data released during the work action already suggested that there had been no spike in violent offenses.

The study, based on NYPD crime statistics, was published in Nature Human Behavior.

"We find that civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased during and shortly after sharp reductions in proactive policing," the study's authors wrote. "The results challenge prevailing scholarship as well as conventional wisdom on authority and legal compliance, as they imply that aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts."

During the slowdown—which was launched, ironically, as a protest against police reform—cops stopped making unnecessary arrests, traffic violation citations saw a 94 percent drop, parking violation citations went down 92 percent, and there was an overall drop in arrests of 66 percent. Essentially, "broken windows" policing stopped.

These are good outcomes. Cop advocates argued during the slowdown that such "proactive policing" put them in danger. But it also puts the people they come into contact with in danger. Reducing unnecessary interactions between police officers and residents is an important component of any effort to reduce police violence and abuse. This could have been an opportunity for advocates of police reform to point out that their goals and the preferences of many police officers are not so far apart.

Instead, some prominent proponents of police reform, like The New York Times' editorial board, actually called on the mayor of New York to fire police commanders until arrests for petty lawbreaking went back up. They even argued that the Department of Justice should investigate possible "civil rights violations in withdrawing policing from minority communities."

Yet it is often the enforcement of petty laws, which disproportionately affect poor and marginalized communities, that create a space for civil rights violations. More broadly speaking, such laws create a pretext to search and harrass members of such communities.

Petty laws are big business for local governments—the NYPD slowdown cost the city about $10 million a week in lost parking ticket revenue. The city gets nearly $800 million a year from fines and forfeitures. For context, that covers about a quarter of the total annual cost of police salaries.

Even when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was trying to coopt the language of police reform, insisting he was concerned about police brutality, he defended the enforcement of petty laws as a core government function despite the demonstrable harm it causes in the communities de Blasio expects to vote for him. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton helpfully added that "correcting your behavior" on police demand is what democracy is all about.

The NYPD brass eventually acknowledged the slowdown and responded with threats and quotas to bring the numbers for petty arrests back up. Too bad: Their employees had accidentally stumbled on a pretty good crime-fighting technique.