Broken windows policing a recipe for race-based enforcement, Legal Aid Society warns in new analysis

NEW YORK — Broken windows leads to broken trust of the police in minority communities, the Legal Aid Society says, citing new NYPD data showing 91% of typical quality-of-life arrests last year were of Black and Latino suspects.

The 10-page analysis by the public defenders group comes as Mayor Eric Adams and NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell have announced a renewed focus on quality of life crimes as they try to address what they consider a sense of disorder in pockets of the city.

“Decades of research have shown that this style of policing produces little to no public safety benefit while further alienating intensively policed communities, criminalizing poverty and exacerbating racial disparities in the criminal legal system,” says the Legal Aid Society report.

Legal Aid analyzed 2021 arrest data for public urination, public drinking, dice games, driving without a license, fare evasion and an “unspecified” offense category that included 335 instances of violations such as disorderly conduct. The review found a striking racial breakdown.

Out of 1,524 cases, Blacks were arrested 854 times, or 56%, while 485 Latinos comprised 32%. Another 48, or 3%, were listed as non-white, while whites were arrested 129 times, or 8.5%. Eight people arrested did not have their race listed.

Most of the arrests in the report were for fare evasion, with 1,114. There were 42 people arrested last year for open alcohol container offenses, including 19 Black and 16 Latino.

Legal Aid representatives will present the analysis at a Wednesday City Council hearing.

“Legal Aid is correct that quality of life enforcement will not solve the problems of society, nor will just ignoring it. The NYPD has an obligation to respond to complaints. Whether the call comes in from a mother in Brownsville or a shopkeeper on the Upper East Side, they are both entitled to a police response and where a warning fails, some enforcement that will correct the condition may be necessary. It’s called serving the public,” said Deputy Commissioner for Public Information John Miller.

The NYPD two weeks ago rolled out the Neighborhood Safety Unit, whose officers are tasked with taking guns off the street.

Along with that effort, the NYPD announced it would step up quality-of-life enforcement, prompting critics to call the initiative broken windows policing with a different name. Adams and police insist that ignoring seemingly minor offenses increases the likelihood of shootings and other serious crimes.

Sewell, in announcing the crackdown, cited offenses that that “can be precursors to violence,” including drinking and urinating in public, dice games and driving without a valid license.

Broken windows policing was first proposed 40 years ago this month in an article in The Atlantic and popularized in the 1990s by former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The NYPD maintains it is critical to fighting crime, even as overall arrests and summonses dropped sharply during the de Blasio administration, with the crime rate also declining into early 2020.

The department Tuesday could not say how many of its 2021 arrests for low level offenses were the result of police responding to community complaints, as it has often said, and how many were initiated by officers on the streets.

Corey Stoughton, a Legal Aid supervisor, said most broken windows enforcement is not generated by a complaint and does not address the societal issues at the heart of such problems.

“These are behaviors of poverty, and when police go out and address them with enforcement action it doesn’t actually solve the problem,” she said. ‘’I just cannot believe that this police department, which prides itself on being a national standard for policing, is resorting to this kind of stale, tired, demonstrably unsuccessful strategy.”