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Today, standing in front of news-cameras and press, newly elect mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio responds to the grievances of stop and frisk critics and progressive non-profits groups by appointing ‘America’s Top Cop,’ William Bratton as chief commissioner of the New York City Police Department. This is a slap in the face for many liberals across the city as their dreams of a progressive mayor are quickly dashed. Yet, for the few community activists that have not sold their hopes to city electoral politics, the appointment of Bratton signals the state response to dissent and a reaffirmation of the role of police in the neoliberal era with new points of interest, namely the criminalization of youth across New York City.
Now 66 years old, Bratton, admonished by many as “America’s Top Cop” comes back to the city that in the 1990s gave him the free pass to practice his zero-tolerance policing strategies, albeit, back then under a republican mayor. Some may question de Blasio’s decision. Given the tensions that have mounted recently against stop and frisk, why appoint someone that is so closely tied to this particular form of ‘quick-fix’ policing that continues to alienate communities of color?
Broken-windows policing was the brainchild of social science. James Q. Wilson and William Kelling in a 1982 article in The Atlantic proposed that eradicating graffiti, loitering, and other outward signs of community decay would effectively make communities safer and simultaneously address future crimes. The theory was taken up and applied by William Bratton, in his tenures as police chief in New York City in the 1990s and Los Angeles in 2000s. Since then the relationship between broken windows policing and crime rates has been debunked. Bernard Harcourt for example, in his book The Illusion of Order, challenges the correlation often drawn by criminologists between crime and disorder. It is also important to note that broken windows theory, also known as zero tolerance policing became the main form of policing strategy as neoliberal agenda was being consolidated. The consequences of zero tolerance policing have been documented far and wide from heightened surveillance to harassment, police brutality, over-arrests and overall dehumanization of poor communities and communities of color. Zero-tolerance policing has effectively allowed the NYPD to practice search and stops that are similar to the counterinsurgency military techniques of ‘cordon and search’ used in Afghanistan.
So given the way in which Bratton was instrumental in implementing zero tolerance policing, out of which ‘stop and frisk’ is an aspect of, why assign him again to the task of overseeing the NYPD?
Before we get angry at DeBlasio for failing to fulfill the role that many liberals across the city have boxed him into, let us recall the mainstream response to stop and frisk policing by the “progressive” elements of NYC.
On February 4th, 2012 at a rally in the South Bronx for the beating of Jatiek Reed and the murder of Rahmarley Graham, city council members and progressive officials took the opportunity to get on the microphone and to speak against stop and frisk and to criticize the NYPD for the egregious assault of one young man and the murder of another. While politicians gave speeches on end, no one from the community was invited to speak about their experiences with the NYPD. Furthermore, the rhetoric remained one that was critical of ‘stop and frisk’ but supportive of the role that police play in combating crime. Take Back the Bronx along with other activists drew attention away from the banter of the politicians to the heart of the matter by chanting: “Fuck the NYPD.” The real problem community members shouted was not only ‘stop and frisk’: the real enemy was the NYPD. The angry politicians tried to quiet the voices, but it was too late. The community members attending the march already left the politicians behind, chanting and taking over the streets of the South Bronx. This is a unique response to stop and frisk and to policing in general that is missing from progressive mainstream accounts.
Instead, the progressive activists and their non-profits have hijacked the discourse and have focused their energies on reforming the NYPD. Examples of this abound from so-called progressive East Flatbush councilmember Jumaane Williams to coalitions like Communities United for Police Reform (which includes many progressive non-profit groups throughout NYC). Together, they have been fundamental in channeling a radical critique of the NYPD to one that has boiled down to essentially legislative reform.
So, I wonder if these same groups will be surprised today as Bratton “the father of community policing” is called up to the task of overseeing the NYPD?
It may seem confusing to try to pinpoint why Bratton is hired at a moment when ‘stop and frisk’ has come under such scrutiny. Yet when we look at developments in Chicago and Oakland the picture is clearer.
Recently, in Oakland community groups came together to challenge City Council’s decision to hire Bratton as a consultant for its police department. In Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel has openly embraced broken windows policing as a way to deal with violence. While politicians and their middle-class supporters cite violence as one of the main reasons for the need for heightened police presence, they do not look deeper to see the ways in which neoliberalism has affected Chicago, Oakland and New York City. Neoliberal re-structuring has displaced thousands. In neighborhoods that continue to ‘hold out’ and whose location is prime target for developers the only people that stand in the way are the youth. So, what we see in places like Chicago, Oakland and increasingly New York City is a focus on criminalization of youth, particularly street families or as the police likes to call them: gangs.
In Oakland, Bratton’s hire as a consultant for the police department was proposed at a time when community groups were heavily fighting gang injunctions, youth curfews etc. Similarly, in New York City, his appointment as Chief Commissioner of NYPD comes at time of increased scrutiny of police practices. The state is making a particular choice when it hires Bratton as chief commissioner of the NYPD. It is responding to its critics and is clamping down on them. Bratton is coming into New York City at time when the NYPD is turning its attention to youth gangs like never before. In the next year, we will see more the state focus its forces more heavily on criminalization of youth. What will be our response?
Zhandarka Kurti lives in the Bronx. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org