ON-Lion Letter

"The tragic death of Eric Garner last July has fueled a growing campaign against broken windows policing," begins a December column in Time by Bradley Prize recipient Heather Mac Donald.  "Garner was selling untaxed, loose cigarettes -- a misdemeanor offense -- on a commercial strip of Staten Island, NY, when a group of New York police officers tried to arrest him.  He resisted, and the officers brought the 350-pound asthmatic to the ground by pulling him down by his neck. Garner went into cardiac arrest and eventually died."

Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which is substantially supported by The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.

"Garner’s death was a grotesque tactical failure," Mac Donald continues.  "But police critics say that it also illustrates the dangers of broken windows policing, especially for minorities.  Broken windows theory holds that enforcing public order laws -- such as laws against graffiti, trespassing, and illegal street vending -- reduces both the fear of crime and crime itself.  According to critics, however, public order policing is a racist assault on poor minority neighborhoods that criminalizes innocuous behavior.  Should the critics succeed in reducing or eliminating low-level misdemeanor enforcement in New York City, they may produce a paradoxical consequence:  a rise in the New York State prison population.

"As the national prison census rose steadily over the last 15 years, New York State's prison population dropped a remarkable 17% from 2000 to 2009," she writes.  "This drop in the incarcerated population was all the more surprising, since the average New York State prison sentence lengthened considerably during that time and the number of arrests in New York City -- which is responsible for the vast majority of New York State prisoners -- increased.

"The rise in arrests and the lengthier felony sentences (now among the nation's longest) should have inflated the prison population," according to Mac Donald.  "The opposite happened, however, because the type of arrests that the New York Police Department was making had changed radically.  As Michael Jacobson of the Vera Institute and James Austin of the JFA Institute document in 'How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration,' misdemeanor arrests in New York City shot up and felony arrests plummeted, thanks to the advent of broken windows policing in 1994.

"Garner died not because the police were enforcing quality of life laws," Mac Donald concludes, "but because the tactics used to subdue him, interacting with his serious health problems, backfired horribly.  Those tactics and police training around them need serious reconsideration; broken windows policing does not."

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