The arrests of two Black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks this past spring spurred debate about whether calling cops is an act of racism. Since then, similar incidents where police were called on a napping Black college student, Black Airbnb users and even Black barbecuers by white people have reached new levels of absurdity and even inspired proposed legislation aimed at making 911 calls against innocent Black people a hate crime.
Last week, #CornerstoreCaroline became a viral outrage after video showed a white woman named Teresa Klein calling the police; she could be heard in the video claiming she was sexually accosted by a 9-year old Black boy. But video shows that his bookbag may have brushed up against her—like any normal person might assume.
Needlessly involving cops reflects a longstanding problem with modern policing and at the root is a political trajectory that traces back to the not-so-distant history of New York City.
In the 1990s, the city radically repurposed police to focus on low-level offenses. A war against "quality of life" offenders became a rallying cry amplified at the bully pulpit of former mayor Rudy Giuliani. The Broken Windows theory of policing blamed low-level offenders for serious crimes by suggesting that a breakdown of order fueled violence.
Low-level arrests in the city skyrocketed in a fifteen year stretch from just over 60,000 in 1993 to over 240,000 in 2008, a pace far exceeding the rest of the state or other urban cities. Complaint-based arrests also steadily rose during that span. The overwhelming majority of those arrested? You guessed it: Black and Latinos. This, of course, doesn't count the summonses or informal contacts police had with so-called "disorderly" New Yorkers.
Giuliani's crusade not only unleashed cops, it also deputized the public to scapegoat low-level offenders. The city encouraged the public to rub the police genie lamp in response to almost any annoyance. Nuisances were now police issues. Loud music? Call the cops. Someone begging on the train? Call the cops.
This war on "disorder" helped instill into New York City what can be described as a nuisance neurosis. Our nuisance neurosis began as an obsession to rid ourselves of every perceived inconvenience: beggars, squeegee men, vendors. This mentality picked up steam in the post-9/11 "see something, say something" era and cultivated a Big Apple where calling cops became a reflexive—and destructive—instinct.
Broken Windows policing, however, didn't emanate organically. "Order maintenance policing" was originally championed by theater owners in Times Square who wanted a more orderly Broadway. The Times Square Alliance, the city's first ever business improvement district, organized business voices to ask police to rid the area of undesirables, as they saw them. Aggressive policing helped pave the way for the the Disneyfication of Times Square as corporate hustlers sought to reclaim the space from street hustlers.
Is it so different when white people summon a gun and badge to reclaim their sense power over Black people through the threat of arrest?
In NYC, we still accommodate complainers and target the vulnerable. At NYPD-hosted neighborhood policing meetings, business reps demand enforcement against street vendors, who see them as nuisances (and competitors). Recent police crackdowns on deliverymen using e-bikes were intensified by Mayor Bill de Blasio after a white Upper West Sider complained to him on a radio show. Not coincidentally, vendors and e-bike delivery workers are mostly non-white.
Nuisance neurosis seems to be made stronger by gentrification. A recent BuzzFeed report suggested that gentrifying neighborhoods see increased calls to police. Though new residents don't have a monopoly on cop-calling, what rings true is that white people—both longtime and gentrifying residents—can complain about things many people of color wouldn't. How one sees street vending, loud music, barbecuing and even subway dancing is often informed by race and class. These concerns have come up as police have defended their adherence to Broken Windows policing by pointing to complainers (though enforcement doesn't necessarily correlate with complaints).
Does gentrification lead to hyper-policing, or vice versa? Both. As NYC aggressively policed nuisances, the city gentrified. As it gentrified, the complaints of new New Yorkers further fueled nuisance neurosis—and calls to police. The result: A city of thin-skinned whiners who don't hesitate to snitch on a single Mister Softee truck or wage an annual war on steel pan drum practice.
How do we break the cycle of nuisance neurosis? Needlessly calling the cops is a learned behavior. #CornerstoreCaroline wasn't the first and certainly won't be the last cop-dialing video that infuriates us. First, let's remember that being a New Yorker was once synonymous with being thick-skinned, resilient and, though often grudgingly, tolerant to the millions of people we call our fellow New Yorkers. We can choose today to bury our deputy police badges, put down our phones and be real New Yorkers. Minding your own business is highly underrated.
At the policy level, demand that local elected officials reel in the size and scope of the NYPD by reducing their budget. Policing will never be the answer for questions of street vending, e-biking, poverty or any number of issues. The billions that are poured into police every year maintain Broken Windows policing. Instead, dedicate taxpayer dollars to non-police solutions. Decades of hyper-policing public urination or fare-beating haven't stopped people from peeing or jumping turnstiles. What if we radically expanded access to public restrooms or made public transportation free for all low-income residents? Our budget is finite. We can't properly fund programs to actually help people while feeding a police state.
Villainizing white complainers has its limits. These are creative ways to deal with issues associated with living in a city of over 8 million people that don't require a gun and badge. Nuisance neurosis and Broken Windows are a testament to our inability to think past policing and its effects on the lives of Black and Latino New Yorkers. It's time to put that era behind us.
Josmar Trujillo is a writer, trainer and organizer based in Spanish Harlem.