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.

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  1. Nice try Eddie, but I have it on good authority that the police are the thin blue line keeping those types out of decent neighborhoods civilization from collapsing into utter chaos.

  2. Remember your Econ 101: this is a case of diminishing marginal returns on policing. NYC is so far past the point of needing broken windows policing that each cop looking out for bullshit is only serving to ignore larger problems.

  3. Didn’t this same thing happen in some South American country, where the police went on strike and crime dropped through the floor?

    1. The crime drops “through the floor”, because people are afraid to venture out if unnecessary, while there is no one to protect them, and the criminals have fewer to prey on.
      If the police stay out for an extended period of time, however, the necessity of people having to go about their business, allows the criminals unfettered access, and crime will increase. That’s why enforcement stoppages are not allowed to go on for too long.
      To accept the premise of the article is to believe that serious crimes are the result of less serious ones being stopped. That’s just stupid.

  4. me stupid but couldn’t it be the drop was because they were policing less, and thus simply caught less criminals? Just because the complaints fell doesn’t mean the actual crimes went away.

    1. Sure, if New Yorkers in general suddenly decided that they’re all okay with having violent crimes committed on their persons and property. But that doesn’t make any sense at all.

    2. “We find that civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased

      People weren’t reporting the crime in the first place. Had this been a reduction in arrests, or convictions, that theory would hold water. But the study shows– or seems to show that fewer crimes were actually occurring.

      Either that or people just stopped calling 911 when they were assaulted.

      1. Here in the Shooting Star of Corrupticut,most crimes are never reported.Citizens are afraid of the HPD,with good reason.

      2. Or, they figured “the police are having their ‘Blue Flu’ and won’t come anyway. Why bother calling?”

  5. Essentially, “broken windows” policing stopped.

    Traffic and parking violations are not and have never been part of “broken windows” policing.

    I’m not stating an opinion for or against “broken windows” but it’s clouding the issue to get such a basic fact completely wrong.

  6. I find this whole concept interesting, especially when you break down the motives.

    Police engage in a slow-down at work. Normally, that’s supposed to hurt they people they work for. But the people they work for actually benefit from the slowdown, but the people they work with— the city government sees a major drop-off in revenue. Funny how pubsec unions work.

  7. The most important aspect of the”broken windows”policy is that it got the police on the street. Showing a lot of Blue keeps criminals from their evil deeds,indeed. Walking a beat does the very same thing without an arrest being made.

  8. The statistics here are essentially meaningless, correlation only, no causation. One can make an argument for or against the position that “broken windows policing” had an effect on more serious crime, but at least there’s a mechanism proposed, that being that locking up petty criminals keeps them from being ABLE to commit more serious crime; that, and the chilling effect on criminal behavior that a more proactive police presence brings.

    I can see NO possible mechanism for a lack of BWP leading to a reduction in major crimes, as this article implies. What, are petty criminals so cheered by their new freedom that they go join Habitat for Humanity builds? Are gangbangers so busy catching up on their graffiti that they just don’t have the time to burgle homes and bust heads?

    If a law should not be enforced, then it should not be a law in the first place.

  9. So … reducing if not eliminating police response to petty criminal activity would seem to have the beneficial effect of reducing more serious criminal activity in black, latin or “economically disadvantaged” communities. This in turn would seem to have the beneficial effect of reducing the number of situations in which violence between civilians and police could occur, which would seem to help address the current wave of concern on the issue.

    And yet … liberals seem to want “proactive policing” to continue. Hmm. Could it be that they are less interested in doing things to resolve the problem than they are in having issues to campaign on?

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