Broken Windows Policing and the Orderly City: New York since the Late Twentieth Century

By Themis Chronopoulos

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In 2001, Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute linked New York City’s improved economic fortunes with the elimination of crime and disorder.[1] This claim is still part of a standard narrative about New York shared by the mass media, the business sector, and many public policy makers. According to this narrative, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his first police commissioner William J. Bratton (1994-1996) followed the prescriptions of the broken windows theory and ordered the police to go after disorderly people because their behavior, if unchecked, represented a gateway to serious crime. In the process, both minor incivilities and major crimes declined and this seemingly made the city even more desirable for affluent people and corporations. This narrative has prevailed mostly because of adept political entrepreneurship by conservative commentators, politicians, think tanks, social scientists, and public officials. The orderly city is represented as an unquestionable precondition for economic prosperity.

The ordering of urban space has a long global history with multiple ideological connotations that seek to justify the dominant political and social order. In the United States, the preoccupation with urban disorder intensified in the post-1945 period because of anxieties about racial transition and the future of cities. Urban disorder was divided into two components, physical and social. The terms “slum” and “urban blight” were utilized to define physical disorder, which in a general sense encompassed the decayed condition of the built environment of an area. Social disorder implied the congregation and activities of “undesirables.” These activities included anything from begging for money and playing loud music loudly to hanging out in street corners. Various disorder eradication programs such as slum clearance, urban redevelopment, spatial fortification, aggressive policing, and the tight regulation of public and quasi-public spaces were used in U.S. cities during the postwar period.[2]

In New York City, social problems were increasingly equated with social disorder after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Homelessness reached staggering levels. Poverty increased while the built environment of low income neighborhoods deteriorated. Drug use became more prominent in public spaces as cheaper and more addictive forms of cocaine began to devastate the populations of many city sections. And crime rates remained high, while the most violent crimes received media attention that made people feel unsafe.[3] It was during this period that the vision of the orderly city, which has dominated ideas about law and order in New York, emerged. For Alex S. Vitale, this new emphasis on urban order required a paradigm shift: “While the previous paradigm of urban liberalism placed a premium on social tolerance, government planning, and rehabilitation, the new paradigm was driven by a concern with social intolerance, market- and volunteer driven mechanisms of social change, and punitiveness.”[4] This new paradigm was articulated by Mayor Edward I. Koch and implied that the thousands of poor people, some of whom were homeless, proliferating in high-profile public spaces had to be contained. Koch was influenced by the broken windows theory advanced by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982.[5] However, the Koch administration was unable to go after quality of life offenders and appease his middle class supporters. This is because the project of making New York more orderly by going after the poor in public spaces was based on four requirements that only emerged in the 1990s. The orderly city depended on the successful implementation of broken windows policing and the redefinition of conduct in public space.[6]

First, broken windows policing requires the generous funding of the police force. This money is used for facilities, equipment, and overtime, but mostly to hire a large number of new uniformed police officers. During periods of fiscal stress, it is difficult to have an orderly city because it is an expensive undertaking requiring resources that may not be available. During the Giuliani administration, the New York Police Department (NYPD) became the highest priority and its budget increased by 57.1 percent (Figure 1).

Trends of the operating New York Police Department budget in relation to the overall operating budget of the City of New York, 1977-2016. Index: Year 1977 = 100. Source: The Annual Report of the Comptroller of the City of New York, 1977-1979, and the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York, Agency Expenditures, 1980-2016 (New York: The Office, 2017).

Trends of the operating New York Police Department budget in relation to the overall operating budget of the City of New York, 1977-2016. Index: Year 1977 = 100. Source: The Annual Report of the Comptroller of the City of New York, 1977-1979, and the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York, Agency Expenditures, 1980-2016 (New York: The Office, 2017).

To put things in perspective, the overall budget of New York City increased by 16.8 percent during the same period. Indeed, no agency other than the NYPD saw its budget increase this much. The biggest budget increase occurred in the 1994-1996 period when the NYPD budget rose by 21.8 percent. This was especially important since the city was still experiencing fiscal problems because of an economic slowdown that began in 1987 and did not end before 1996. The number of uniformed police officers increased from 28,117 in 1993 to 36,728 in 1996 to 40,285 in 2000 (Figure 2).

Number of New York Police Department employees, 1977-2016. The Total Employee category includes civilian employees. Source: City of New York, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of the Comptroller, 1977-2016.

Number of New York Police Department employees, 1977-2016. The Total Employee category includes civilian employees. Source: City of New York, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of the Comptroller, 1977-2016.

This was significantly higher than 31,000 officers, which was considered optimal in the 1980s. To be sure, most of the police officers added in the 1994-1996 period were officers in the Transit Police and Housing Police —the two agencies merged with the NYPD in 1995. Still, the merger allowed the NYPD to deploy many of these police officers in areas outside mass transit or public housing.[7] In the beginning of his term, Giuliani took advantage of Safe Streets, Safe City funds that had been deferred. Safe Streets, Safe City was an initiative of Mayor David N. Dinkins, but his administration did not benefit from these new officers because Giuliani prevailed in the 1993 election. Safe Streets, Safe City helped to enlarge the NYPD immediately after Giuliani took office, but given that the mayor was committed to creating an orderly city and with the 1995 merger of the three city police forces, the NYPD would have grown anyway. The number of beat officers increased by approximately 22 percent between 1993 and 1996. The federal Crime Bill, which was passed in 1994 also helped.[8]

Second, broken windows policing requires low crime rates. If crime rates are high, the city administration cannot justify a disproportionate attention on minor infractions. This second requirement appears to be ironic because broken windows proponents claim that the decline in small offenses translates into a reduction in major crimes. However, the broken windows theory as advanced by Wilson and Kelling in 1982 was a prescription of making people feel safe during periods of declining budgets and high crime. The idea that broken windows policing can also reduce serious crime came later and gained credibility in the 1990s after continuous crime declines in New York. These declines began during the Dinkins mayoralty when broken windows policing was not even implemented. Crime rates declined even more during the Giuliani mayoralty (Figure 3).

Serious crime complaints in New York City, 1975-2015. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation these crimes include murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny–theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reporting, 1975-2015.

Serious crime complaints in New York City, 1975-2015. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation these crimes include murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny–theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reporting, 1975-2015.

The steepest declines occurred in the 1994-1996 period when crime rates declined by 36.7 percent. These declines legitimized the NYPD’s approach of regulating space and offered credibility to the notion that broken windows policing prevents crime. Felony arrests increased by 9.9 percent in 1994 (Figure 4), but declined by 24.8 percent between 1995 and 2001.

Number of misdemeanor and felony arrests in New York City, 1977-2015. Source: Division of State Criminal Services, State of New York.

Number of misdemeanor and felony arrests in New York City, 1977-2015. Source: Division of State Criminal Services, State of New York.

Third, broken windows policing requires a well-deployed, accountable, disciplined, efficient, responsive, and corrupt-free (at least as much as possible) police force. Lack of uniformed personnel can interfere with efficient deployment and besides even well-designed strategies have to be realized by police officers who are disciplined and accountable. During the Giuliani administration, police deployment and accountability improved considerably. Most of the innovations occurred in the 1994-1996 period when Bratton unveiled a number of initiatives that rationalized police organization and divided police functions not only spatially but also according to the population to be policed. The NYPD began to use computerized statistics of crime organized by area. Known as Comp Stat (computer-generated comparative statistics), this new method allowed police headquarters to immediately identify areas with high crime rates. In frequent meetings, precinct commanders were expected to explain why certain types of crime had risen in their areas and the steps that they were planning to take to deal with the problem. If these commanders did not know why crime had increased in their areas, had no plans in place to tackle this criminal activity, or were in a general sense underperforming, they were replaced. Arrests and summonses for misdemeanors increased substantially during this period, reflecting the emphasis on broken windows policing and productivity initiatives. Only between 1993 and 1995, misdemeanor arrests increased by 40.3 percent. They grew by another 23.5 percent between 1995 and 2000 (Figure 4). Summonses increased by 263.5 percent between 1993 and 2000 (Figure 5).[9]

Number of summonses in New York City, 1993-2015. Source: Division of State Criminal Services, State of New York.

Number of summonses in New York City, 1993-2015. Source: Division of State Criminal Services, State of New York.

Fourth, broken windows policing requires a complicit criminal justice system. Despite funding and other improvements, it has never been possible for the criminal justice system to adequately process everyone arrested. In this case, what happens to people arrested for minor infractions becomes part of the orderly city. Police officers meet their productivity requirements while offenders are humiliated. Many of the people arrested are not charged with anything though the ones found guilty acquire a criminal record for offenses that are insignificant. During the Giuliani administration, the criminal justice system did not improve as much, though this requires qualification. Both corrections and district attorney offices saw their budgets increase markedly in the 1980s. After 1990, the budget of the Department of Correction stagnated, because fewer people were admitted to jail and fewer people were arrested for felonies. The number of people arrested for misdemeanors increased, but most of them did not go to jail (overnight detention is not jailtime in corrections facilities). The total budget of the offices of district attorneys and other prosecutors increased by 19.9 percent, reflecting the fact that so many people accused of committing minor infractions had to be processed. This budget increase was not enough to process all the people arrested anyway. Prosecutors began to dismiss a higher number of cases. For example, more than 140,000 cases completed in 1998 were dismissed and this represented an increase of 60 percent when compared with 1993. Jeffrey Fagan and Garth Davis argue that the evidentiary quality of misdemeanor arrests declined and this contributed to the high rate of dismissal. At the same time, prosecutors could not sufficiently deal with the workload. High rates of dismissal were built in the system of spatial regulation that the NYPD devised in the 1990s anyway, given that so many of the arrests were done for offenses that were insignificant.[10]

In recent years, scholars have been exploring the rise of the carceral state, showing that the United States holds the world’s largest prison population and that the majority of people incarcerated are Blacks or Latinos from low-income urban neighborhoods. [11] Michelle Alexander in particular has equated the caste systems of slavery and Jim Crow with mass incarceration. She argues that the carceral system has resulted in the resurgence of Jim Crow practices such as political disenfranchisement.[12] Although the orderly city originates from the policies of law and order that created mass incarceration, it goes beyond the carceral state. Given that the orderly city has flourished during periods of low crime rates, it has become a structural urban apparatus that equates economic prosperity with extreme spatial regulation. The orderly city seeks to control young blacks and Latinos not because they commit crimes but because powerholders think that affluent groups are more likely to invest or live in a city that regulates the activities of minority groups.

The contemporary vision of the orderly city emerged in the 1980s. It was based on the enhancement of the quality-of-life of middle-class residents by reducing “annoyances” they encountered in public space. The broken windows theory popularized this vision by providing its intellectual rationale and explaining the fear of crime in terms of social disorder. Some people who were usually low-income blacks and Latinos were branded as offenders. They were blamed for undermining the quality-of-life of some other people who were usually whites and more affluent.
Ultimately, the orderly city is based on racial profiling. People are profiled because they are not affluent and because they are not white. Where they live also matters, because black or Latino neighborhoods are targeted disproportionately. Given the structural characteristics of the orderly city, racial profiling survived grassroots and political opposition and even intensified during the Michael Bloomberg administration. City powerholders felt that low crime rates were not enough, probably because the individuals that these policies sought to impress were different. They were no longer the old middle class that Koch championed but an upper class.

Themis Chronopoulos is Associate Professor and Director of American Studies at Swansea University in the United Kingdom.

[1] Steven Malanga, “NY: Opportunity City?,” Manhattan Institute, April 29, 2001, https://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ny-opportunity-city-0446.html.

[2] David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Robert J. Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush, “Seeing Disorder: Neighborhood Stigma and the Social Construction of ‘Broken Windows,’” Social Psychology Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2004): 319–42; Themis Chronopoulos, Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance (New York: Routledge, 2011); Themis Chronopoulos, “Robert Moses and the Visual Dimension of Physical Disorder: Efforts to Demonstrate Urban Blight in the Age of Slum Clearance,” Journal of Planning History 13, no. 3 (August 2014): 207–33.

[3] Chronopoulos, Spatial Regulation in New York City, 118-46.

[4] Alex S. Vitale, City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 2.

[5] Wilson and Kelling, “The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows;” Edward I. Koch to Robert J. McGuire, “Memorandum,” Edward I. Koch Administration Departmental Correspondence (hereafter KDC), box 229, folder 14, March 29, 1982, Municipal Archives of the City of New York (hereafter MACNY).

[6] For a fuller elaboration of the orderly city see Themis Chronopoulos, “The Making of the Orderly City: New York since the 1980s,” in Urban America and the Police since World War II, Christopher Agee and Themis Chronopoulos, eds., Special Section of the Journal of Urban History, 2017.

[7] “Memorandum of Understanding between the New York Housing Authority and the City of New York on Merger of the New York City Housing Authority Police Department and the New York Police Department,” Office of the Mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani (hereafter OMRG), Deputy Mayors, Ninfa Segarra, box 02/14/010, folder 499, June 14, 1994, La Guardia and Wagner Archives, La Guardia Community College, Queens, New York (hereafter LGWA); “Memorandum of Understanding among the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York City Transit Authority and the City of New York on Merger of the New York City Transit Authority Police Department and the New York City Police Department,” OMRG, Deputy Mayors, Ninfa Segarra, box 02/01/037, folder 932, 1995, LGWA.

[8] William J. Bratton with Peter Knobler, Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic (New York: Random House, 1998); Rudolph W. Giuliani to Peter F. Vallone, OMRG, Deputy Mayors, Peter Powers, box 02/01/019, folder 460, January 12, 1994, LGWA; Jonathan P. Hicks, “Officials See More Hirings of Police in Anti-crime Bill,” New York Times, August 23, 1994, B4; Gwen Ifill, “‘Victory’ over Crime, At Least Politically,” New York Times, August 18, 1994, 114.

[9] Mindy Tarlow to Dennison Young Jr., “Police Patrol Strength,” OMRG, Deputy Mayors, Peter Powers, box 02/01/019, folder 460, January 4, 1994, LGWA; Pizzuti to Telesca Jr., OMRG, Deputy Mayors, Peter Powers, box 02/01/019, folder 463, June 20, 1994, LGWA; Michael J. Farrell, Reengineering and the New Crime Strategies (New York: NYPD, 1994); New York Police Department, Plan of Action: Report to the Police Commissioner (New York: The Department, 1994); James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto, NYPD: A City and Its Police (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000), 323-26; Peter J. Powers to William J. Bratton, “Monthly Report—August 1994,” OMRG, Deputy Mayors, Peter Powers, box 02/01/020, folder 466, November 9, 1994, LGWA.

[10] Jeffrey Fagan and Garth Davies, “Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race and Disorder in New York City,” Fordham Urban Law Journal 28 (2000): 457-504.

[11] Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (New York: Pantheon, 2016); Heather Ann Thompson and Donna Murch, eds., “Urban America and the Carceral State,” Journal of Urban History 41 (September 2015): 751-861; Kelly Lytle Hernández, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Heather Ann Thompson, eds., “Historians and the Carceral State,” Journal of American History 102 (June 2015): 18-184; Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2014); Natalie Byfield, Savage Portrayals: Race, Media and the Central Park Jogger Story (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).

[12] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).