The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 79/No. 6      February 23, 2015

(front page, Militant commentary)
Does ‘broken windows’ policy
cause police brutality?

NEW YORK — In the wake of protests against the killing of Eric Garner after cops in Staten Island put him in a chokehold, many working people are discussing what can be done to end police brutality. Some participants in the protests argue that the problem is New York cops’ “broken windows” policing. This is a necessary debate for working people seeking a road forward.

Broken windows gets its name from proponents of preventive policing — attempts to keep crime from happening as opposed to sitting back and reacting after crimes have taken place. They say that there is a “connection between one broken window left untended and a thousand broken windows.”

Using foot patrols in working-class communities to clamp down on lesser crimes “such as public drinking and drug use, fights, public urination, and other acts considered to be minor offenses, with responses ranging from warning and referral to summons and arrest” leads to fewer major crimes, and therefore fewer arrests, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, one of the architects of broken windows, wrote in the Winter 2015 City Journal magazine.

“Broken Windows Policing Doesn’t Work: It Also May Have Killed Eric Garner,” proclaimed a headline on the Slate news website in December, pointing to the cops’ claim that Garner had committed a misdemeanor by selling loose cigarettes.

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries also blamed broken windows for Garner’s death. “That philosophy may have made sense 20 years ago when crime was extremely high, but the windows in New York City are largely together, and have been repaired,” Jeffries told PBS NewsHour Dec. 4. “So there’s no reason to engage in the same aggressive approach that had taken place in the past.”

But the truth is large numbers of working people — especially in the Black and Latino community — prefer preventive policing, and for good reason.

Few in New York want to go back to the decades when the cops sat around the donut shop, ignoring crime in the Black and other working-class communities. The only times people there saw the cops was when units like the Tactical Patrol Force, an elite gang steeped in corruption, busted down doors with virtual impunity to rob drug dealers and brutalize any residents who got in their way, in the early 1960s.

It wasn’t until the rise of the mass mobilizations for the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation and the urban rebellions that shook the North that the cops felt compelled to patrol and prosecute crimes committed against people in the Black community.

Working people know police brutality firsthand and don’t like it. They also live with crime and gang violence. They want to know their children will come home safe from school each day and they want to be able to go out and not worry about being mugged or worse.

The killing of Garner from a police chokehold helped fuel some of the largest — and most multinational — demonstrations against police brutality in years, some with significant union participation. The protests, which swept the country from coast to coast, are a sign of what has been won in struggle in the U.S. over the last several decades. Among working people of all nationalities there is less tolerance for police brutality, less tolerance of cops on the take, less acceptance of racism.

But opponents of police brutality who call for an end to broken windows policing miss the point. The cops carry out whatever form of policing they are ordered to protect and serve the interests of the propertied owners and their profits and to keep working people in our place, treating us with disdain. Their job is to defend the rule of capital, not to solve crimes against working people. As the class struggle heats up, they will break strikes and repress demonstrations.

But working people are not indifferent to the impact different policies and stances have on their day-to-day lives, and their struggles can have an impact on them.

Murder rate declines
Broken windows was implemented in New York subways in 1990 and in the city at large in 1994. Murders in the city peaked with 2,605 in 1990 and have declined almost every year since. The shift to cops patrolling in communities of the oppressed using preventive police policies — under the impact of the rise of the fight for Black rights — is a factor.

Stop and frisk is a different form of preventive policing, based on violation of the constitutional right to be free from unwarranted search and seizure. Under stop and frisk thousands of people, mostly Black youth, were stopped, most of the time for no legitimate reason, searched and then sent on their way. In a small number of cases, weapons or drugs found, or planted, led to arrests.

Before New York City officials cut back stop and frisk “I’d get stopped every other day, and for no good reason,” Martin Martinez, an unemployed warehouse worker in Brooklyn, told the Militant. After public protests, stop and frisk was cut back at the end of the Michael Bloomberg administration. Since then, Martínez said, he hasn’t been stopped. “It’s both positive and negative,” he said. “There’s more things going on in my neighborhood that shouldn’t be.”

But working people cannot accept restrictions on basic democratic and political rights, whether they’re “effective” in fighting crime or not.

Police brutality is part and parcel of capitalism. While at times it can be pushed back, it cannot be eliminated until a revolutionary movement has advanced far enough to be able to dismantle the police force and replace it with one that serves the interest of working people, like was done in Cuba and later in Nicaragua, at least in the early years of the Sandinista revolution.

Ties of solidarity among working people are strengthened in times of growing social struggles. Through being drawn into revolutions, like in Cuba in 1959, working people gain a qualitatively different sense of their self-worth and become transformed as the anti-social hold of dog-eat-dog capitalism is shattered.

Over time the need for a police force will wither away. Until then, a revolutionary proletarian government would implement its own kind of preventive policing, but with a different kind of police force — one that defends the interests of working people and is organized as part of broader efforts to integrate everyone into the work of building a new society.  
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