The expert who helped develop the NYPD's "broken windows" enforcement tactics said Monday that officers make more arrests for low-level quality-of-life offenses in minority communities because residents there want law enforcement to deal with those issues.
George L. Kelling, who has championed the tactic for decades and is a consultant for NYPD Commissioner William Bratton in the area of quality-of-life offenses, defended the NYPD for trying to keep the pressure on low-level problems like subway groping, marijuana use, public urination and drinking.
Opponents of the NYPD offensive under Bratton have criticized the tactic as focusing primarily on minority communities. It came under renewed criticism last month after Staten Island resident Eric Garner died from a police chokehold following his arrest when he was accused of selling loose cigarettes.
"It is sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Kelling, 78, in a telephone interview about the furor over police quality-of-life initiatives under Bratton.
Kelling said middle-class communities don't have nearly the amount of offenses that are the focus of "broken windows" policing. The NYPD's focus is on lower-income sections of the city because that is where the majority of the low-level problems occur, he said.
"If we 'put cops on the dots' -- that is, in high crime areas -- we are going to do so in poor and minority areas," said Kelling in a follow-up email. "If police are appropriately active, as most poor and minority citizens want, they will have more contact with those in neighborhoods who create problems and victimize residents."
But Robert Gangi, head of the Police Reform Organizing Project, a Manhattan-based group dealing with police misconduct and other issues in the NYPD, said the emphasis on minor offenses comes at the expense of more serious crimes and targets minorities.
"The picture presented is that broken windows policing is marked by sharp racial biases and is focused on low-level infractions," Gangi said, adding that a review of some quality-of-life misdemeanor cases found that most defendants in court are black and Hispanic. "If people are victimizing residents, that is who you should go after, not people drinking beer."
Gangi said some officers have told him they don't get credit for breaking up a fight among teenagers, but rather for issuing tickets or making arrests.
However, Kelling said any focus on quality of life will lead to a spike in certain kinds of arrests. Eventually, arrests and summonses should decrease as behavior changes. Court data show that summonses for common quality-of-life offenses have dropped steadily in recent years.
Kelling said quality-of-life enforcement can involve simple warnings from officers, with arrests being the last resort.
"There will always be a need for minimum level of enforcement, but normal social controls will operate," Kelling said.