Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York City on a pledge to eliminate the racist policing strategies of the past. On the campaign trail, he challenged NYPD’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy, which disproportionately targeted African-American and Hispanic New Yorkers—almost 85 percent of those stopped were of people of color. De Blasio spoke the language of police reform and progress.
Yet on day one of his mayoralty, de Blasio betrayed his word—and even more, the Black and Hispanic communities of New York City—by bringing back an even more blatantly discriminatory policing strategy: the practice of aggressive misdemeanor arrests known as “broken windows policing.”
Before even settling into City Hall, de Blasio appointed former-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s first police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to head the NYPD again, with the very same mandate of broken-windows policing: to crack down on minor quality-of-life offenses.
And even as Bratton resigned two-and-a-half years later, de Blasio maintained that broken windows policing was “still the right approach.” In effect, rather than reform policing, de Blasio doubled-down and returned the city to the Giuliani-style approach.
Many New Yorkers realized the betrayal on day one. But the recent unconscionable police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other Black men and women, have tragically served to enlighten most others to the fact that de Blasio’s initial bait-and-switch contributed significantly to the problems we face today and to the harrowing experiences that Black and Hispanic women and men undergo in this country on a daily basis.
Broken windows policing was at the origin in the 1990s of the racially-disproportionate targeted focus on minor offenses that transformed policing in this country and resulted in the often-deadly overpolicing that has plagued New York City and the nation.
Despite all the window dressing, broken windows policing boiled down to a policy of aggressive misdemeanor arrests. Its co-founder, George Kelling, stated, in his empirical study from 2001, the “measure of ‘broken windows’ policing [is] represented by a precinct’s arrests for misdemeanor offenses.” (Bratton did too in his 2015 report “NYPD: Broken Windows and Quality-of-Life Policing in New York City.”)
By 2014, when de Blasio swore Bratton in as his police chief, there was already overwhelming empirical evidence that cracking down on misdemeanors was a racially discriminatory policy that had clear disparate impact on Black and Hispanic communities, not just in New York City, but around the country. There was also an empirical consensus among social scientists that there was no real evidence that broken windows policing reduced serious crime.
That was no secret. It was common knowledge among experts. The racism especially was well understood because it was baked into the misdemeanor arrest statistics.
A John Jay College of Criminal Justice report published in 2014 meticulously documented the racial skew in misdemeanor arrests: the disproportionate arrest of Black and Hispanic New Yorkers. The detailed report, presented to the Citizens Crime Commission, titled “Trends in Misdemeanor Arrests in New York City,” drew this telling—and devastating—figure:
The racial disparities were even greater among the targeted and profiled sub-population of young Black and Latino men:
These unconscionable disparities reflected decades of racial discrimination in policing in New York City, and they ultimately trace back to this country’s ugly history of slavery. They are a haunting portrait of Michelle Alexander’s powerful argument in The New Jim Crow.
Everyone in the field knew about these racial disparities by 2014.
By deliberately choosing to target misdemeanors for an aggressive arrest policy, de Blasio and Bratton knew that broken windows policing would disproportionately impact Black and Latinx communities.
Those racial disparities in misdemeanor arrest rates in New York City remain as stark as ever, even as arrests have steadily declined since 2011 in the city and nationwide.
This is minutely detailed in a report, “Trends in Misdemeanor Arrests in New York, 1980 to 2017,” published December 26, 2018 by the Misdemeanor Justice Project at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which dissects the racial breakdown of misdemeanor arrests from 1980 to 2017.
As the report concludes, “The difference between the rates of arrests for non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic Whites has changed little and has consistently been wider in New York City compared to Upstate Cities and the Rest of the State.”
In fact, the racial disproportionality in misdemeanor arrest rates is even bigger than it was back in 1993, when Giuliani was elected, as evidenced in the following graph:
Moreover, the 2018 John Jay report found that the racial disparities in New York City far outpace those in the rest of New York State:
In 2017, non-Hispanic Blacks were 5.2 times more likely than non-Hispanic Whites to be arrested for a misdemeanor in New York City, 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for a misdemeanor in Upstate Cities and 4.1 times more likely to be arrested for a misdemeanor in the Rest of the State. In 2017, Hispanics were 3.0 times more likely than non-Hispanic Whites to be arrested for a misdemeanor in New York City, 1.5 times more likely to be arrested for a misdemeanor in Upstate Cities and 1.6 times more likely to be arrested for a misdemeanor in the Rest of the State.
Similarly, although the number of stop-and-frisks the NYPD has conducted under de Blasio has declined dramatically from the Bloomberg era, they continue to be disproportionately targeted on young Black and Latino men.
According to a detailed report by NYCLU, published in March 2019, Black and Latino men between the ages of 14 and 24, who represented only 5 percent of New York City’s population, accounted for 38 percent percent of reported stops from 2014, when de Blasio became mayor, to 2017.
In 2019, years into de Blasio’s mandate, 81 percent of New Yorkers stopped are people of color, and that even reflects significant undercounting of stops.
These gross racial disparities were evident during the NYPD’s mass arrest campaign against the ongoing George Floyd protests, especially under the curfew.
This reflects precisely the type of aggressive and racially discriminatory arrest policy that created the “Misdemeanorland” within which Black and Latinx people live today, as Issa Kohler-Hausmann poignantly documents, and the system of “punishment without crime,” as Alexandra Natapoff details, that has scarred this country with racial discrimination and overpolicing.
The homicide of Eric Garner—that took Mayor de Blasio five agonizing years to fully address—was a direct result of that kind of broken-windows policing. And it is that kind of policing, gone nationwide, that resulted, most recently, in the death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.
For years, advocates have argued that there are myriad other non-punitive, non-policing paths to take: have social workers help the homeless, have the Sanitation department clean off graffiti, create work programs for those in need. The alternatives were endless.
But instead, Mayor de Blasio wedded himself to broken-windows policing, and has turned New York City into a punitive and racially discriminatory society—a society that addresses every concern through policing and punishment, predominantly of Black and Latinx bodies.
We knew that from the experience of the 1990s.
It was shameful for de Blasio to walk the city back there.
This is a day of reckoning. It is time for the mayor to resign, and let others relight the torch for justice that de Blasio blew out the day he was sworn in.
Bernard E. Harcourt is professor of law and political science at Columbia University in New York City. He is the author of Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing (Harvard 2001) and of the forthcoming book, Critique & Praxis (Columbia, 2020).