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ACLU Report: A Tale of Two NYCs When It Comes to Policing

by Derek Gilna

A September 2018 report by the New York American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) argues that the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) continues to target minority communities by following a broken-windows theory of policing.

The theory “posits that if minor crimes are allowed to happen in a neighborhood without recourse, and signs of neglect like literal broken windows are visible, then it will lead to more disorder and eventually to serious crime.”

In reality, it is “used as a cover” to discriminate, says the report, “Shattered: The Continuing, Damaging, and Disparate Legacy of Broken Windows Policing in New York City.”

The ACLU noted that stop-and-frisk, which was the “practice of stopping and questioning people in public and subjecting them to searches of their bodies, often invasively and often without cause—had become widespread under the Michael Bloomberg administration as did public anger over the tactic.” An ACLU lawsuit stopped that practice, at least on paper, but it apparently did not change the mindset of the NYPD or reduce the apprehension of many innocent minorities, who continue to adjust their daily lives to avoid contact with the police.

In 2016, the ACLU surveyed almost 1,500 New Yorkers in lightly and heavily policed areas of the city, and the results of that survey show that abuses continue. According to the ACLU, “The NYPD’s adherence to the Broken Windows theory of crime continues to cause innocent black and brown New Yorkers to feel targeted and harassed while they go about their daily lives.”

“More than two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents in heavily policed communities feared having a friend or family member killed by police (15 percent of respondents in lightly policed communities felt the same way). 85 percent of survey respondents in heavily policed communities said they actively changed things about their behavior, relationships, use of space, or schedule to avoid police surveillance,” the report states.

Even more disturbing is the report’s findings that “more than a third of respondents in heavily policed communities reported enduring extreme physical force from police, compared to just four percent in lightly policed communities.”

People in those highly policed areas complained of being wrongly accused of committing a crime and being sexually harassed by officers. In fact, almost half of survey respondents related that they were reluctant to call the police, feeling that police presence would only aggravate the situation.

The ACLU argued that the NYPD must end the practice of broken windows policing, “stop hiding police misconduct, require police to tell people their rights, and stop concealing high-power surveillance technologies from the public.”

The ACLU also said more attention must be paid to education and economic development in heavily policed neighborhoods, rather than dwell solely on intensive policing.

The report also claims that achieving and maintaining substantial reductions in crime did not require an overly aggressive police presence in minority neighborhoods.

“New York has come a long way in terms of public safety—it is one of the safest cities in the world ... In 2016 the average number of major crimes was 19 per 1,000 residents for the five precincts that encompass the heavily policed neighborhoods in our survey. In comparison, the average number for the 10 precincts that encompass the lightly policed neighborhoods was 15 per 1,000.” Murder and rape in New York also have been greatly reduced.

Finally, the report says the NYPD must listen to its citizens, and lighten its touch in dealing with them. “We must go deeper to eliminate systemic bias, and we must let New Yorkers’ lived experiences guide us to a more equal, safer city for everyone.” 



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