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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

City Council mustn't shatter broken-windows policing

An NYPD patrol car.

An NYPD patrol car. Credit: iStock

In the early 1980s, every NYU student knew where to buy pot. If you wanted good weed, you went to Ninth Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. The garbage in Washington Square Park was for tourists. I'm sure Mayor Bill de Blasio would back that up. He was at NYU then, too.

But something strange started happening around 1984. Pot-smoking classmates of mine began reporting people following them with cameras the moment they "copped." Soon thereafter, hand-painted banners started appearing across East Village streets reading, "Los Blockos."

Los Blockos was a volunteer citizen group started by a young East Village -- or Loisaida -- resident named Antonio Pagán. Pagán, who was later elected to the City Council, had had it with people treating his community like a sewer. Drunken kids were coming into Loisaida nightly to buy dope, peeing in vestibules and waking up working people with 2 a.m. shouts. Los Blockos had had enough.

Founding Los Blockos was a gutsy move by Pagán, who later became a close friend. In defending the neighborhood, his group was taking on local drug dealers. To this day I'm convinced that the group was the beginning of the "broken-windows" movement that eventually turned New York City around.

Pagán, who tragically died at 50 in 2009, was an instant target for revenge at the time. He would never have let me tell this story if he were alive, but I will anyway to give you some sense of his bravery:

Pagán was receiving constant death threats from a local drug syndicate. One night, as he was home-cooking -- Antonio loved to cook -- a long line of Harley-Davidsons pulled up to the front of his building with a roar. His front-door buzzer rang repeatedly, but of course he didn't answer it. Who would? The bikers got in the building, anyway. As Pagán listened to their heavy motorcycle boots marching up the stairs, he resolved to open his apartment door when they got to it. "If I was going to die, I was going to do it standing up," he told me.

It was the infamous Third Street Hell's Angels, and they didn't kill him. Just the opposite, in fact. "Hey, Pagán," their leader said. "We like what you're doing with the neighborhood. We just came to let you know we've got your back now."

The death threats stopped.

I mention all this because there was a time in the city when Pagán's thinking was considered radical -- when people standing up for public order and common sense were seen as outliers. Petty lawbreakers were viewed sympathetically, as society's victims, by many of the city's elected leaders. "Small" street crimes were considered nuisances to be ignored.

When drug-addled suburban miscreants took over Tompkins Square Park in the late '80s, for example, the local councilwoman, Miriam Friedlander, a former member of the Bronx Communist Party, called for decriminalizing their behavior and bringing social services into the park to "help" them. Pagán smartly used that, and other things, to beat her in a Democratic primary a couple of years later. His campaign cry around Tompkins Square was, essentially, "Pack up and get out. This is our park."

The unmistakable result of "broken windows" policing -- aggressively pursuing small street crimes to forestall larger crimes -- is now legendary. New York went from an out-of-control city to the safest big city in America. Parents now push children on swings in Tompkins Square Park well after dusk.

But the old type of thinking is inexplicably seeping back into the New York City Council now. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito of Manhattan and Councilman Rory Lancman of Queens are driving legislation to effectively decriminalize public urination, turnstile jumping and open alcohol containers, among other things. The lawbreakers are being seen as victims of "over-policing."

Lancman's and Mark-Viverito's thinking represents liberalism at its most inane. With all that's happened to New York City in the past 30 years, one can't help wondering what they've been smoking.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.