In New York, Major Crime Complaints Fell When Cops Took a Break from “Proactive Policing”

Proactive Policing

When New York police officers temporarily reduced their “proactive policing” efforts on low-level offenses, major-crime reports in the city actually fell, according to a study based on New York Police Department crime statistics.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, put a crack in the “broken windows” theory of policing that has become a mainstay of many urban police departments.

“Order maintenance policing,” a type of proactive policing, is informed by the ‘broken windows’ theory — the idea that by fighting smaller crimes, it’s possible to create a ‘lawful’ environment that helps deter the more serious crimes. It’s an idea that was put to use in the 1990s by former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton (who also served as Los Angeles police chief from 2002 to 2009).

The idea has taken hold in police departments around the U.S. But some researchers have worried that this kind of policing can have a detrimental effect in the communities it targets.

Citizens are arrested, unauthorized markets are disrupted, and people lose their jobs, all of which create more localized stress on individuals already living on the edge.

“A serious concern is that proactive policing diverts finite resources and attention away from investigative units, including detectives working to track down serial offenders and break up criminal networks,” the authors point out. “Proactive policing also disrupts communal life, which can drain social control of group-level violence. Citizens are arrested, unauthorized markets are disrupted, and people lose their jobs, all of which create more localized stress on individuals already living on the edge. Such strains are imposed directly through proactive policing, and thus are independent from subsequent judgments of guilt or innocence.”

Either way, these arguments are hard to test, because the cause-and-effect of policing and crime are difficult to tease apart.

“Police officers target their efforts at areas where crime is anticipated and/or where they expect enforcement will be most effective,” they wrote. “Simultaneously, citizens decide to comply with the law or commit crime partly on the basis of police deployment and enforcement strategies. In other words, policing and crime are endogenous to unobservable strategic interaction, which frustrates causal analysis.”

That changed over the course of several weeks in late 2014 and early 2015. After a jury declined to indict the officers involved in the fatal chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the NYPD held a work “slowdown” for about seven weeks as political conflict between protesters, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s police unions intensified.

This sudden slowdown provided researchers an opportunity to answer the question: Did crime rates go up when proactive policing went down?

“This makes for a unique natural experiment to identify the causal effects of changing police practices,” the authors wrote.

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Amina Khan
Los Angeles Times