WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The “broken windows” law enforcement strategy of aggressively pursuing petty criminals is coming under attack, after a grand jury this week decided not to indict a New York police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man.
Eric Garner died in July after a confrontation with police. Officers tried to arrest Garner based on complaints that he was illegally selling cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk.
The clash between Garner and police, captured on video, has stoked a debate over the “broken windows” concept that says police should pursue small violations to create a larger atmosphere of obedience and prevent other, more destructive crimes.
The idea dates back to the early 1980s and was popularized by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican who governed the city from 1994 to 2001. Giuliani’s first police commissioner was Bill Bratton from 1994 to 1996 and Bratton is in the same position under current Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat.
Some say the theory has evolved into a zero tolerance policy that has led to disproportionate responses by police.
U.S. Representative Jose Serrano, a Democrat who represents a largely minority community in New York City, said on Friday that he has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate New York’s policing for small crimes.
“We should carefully evaluate how ‘broken windows’ is being implemented in practice and how its enforcement may be infringing on people’s civil rights,” Serrano said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined comment on Serrano’s request.
Republicans this week also questioned whether police are appropriately focusing their attention. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky blamed laws such as New York City’s cigarette taxes that give rise to illegal sales and other bad behavior.
“I think, my goodness, do we not have enough violence going on in our community that really needs to be policed that we’re going to go harass people for selling cigarettes?” Paul said on Fox News on Thursday.
Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York struck out against what she called a disproportionate response to minor crimes.
“When you have a man who was committing an arguably low-level offense end up dead because of the use of lethal force, you have an issue,” Gillibrand said on MSNBC on Friday.
Police backers say programs like New York’s “stop and frisk” sets the standard that bad behavior will not be tolerated and has reduced violent crime rates. Last year, however, a federal judge found the city’s use of that strategy constituted a form of illegal racial profiling, and ordered major changes.
The broken windows theory was introduced by two social scientists in a 1982 magazine article and gained traction in New York. It posits that poorly maintained urban environments with dirty streets, abandoned buildings and the like attract crime, while well-kept communities are more law-abiding.
Giuliani, who is largely credited with popularizing the strategy, could not be reached for comment on Friday. He said on Fox News on Thursday that the police response to Garner was justified because he did not cooperate with law enforcement.
But critics say police have stretched the theory beyond its original intent into an indiscriminate zero-tolerance policy.
“If the problem is a broken window they should fix the window,” said City University of New York law school professor Steve Zeidman. “But somehow we don’t fix the window, we just arrest people who start hanging out by the broken window.”
Stuart Gang, a retired New York City police officer, defended the doctrine, saying it has increased the responsiveness of law enforcement to a range of crimes. “There is nothing wrong with ‘broken windows’,” he said.
Reporting by Emily Stephenson and Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Grant McCool