Law enforcement focus on quality-of-life offenses renews old debate over 'broken windows' policing

NYPD officers patrol the Franklin Avenue subway station last July in New York, where a crackdown on quality-of-life offenses has renewed debate over "broken windows" policing.

(CNN)The New York Police Department is cracking down on offenses that have become part of daily life in some neighborhoods: public consumption of alcohol, open-air marijuana sales and public urination.

The goal is to combat relatively minor infractions that the nation's largest police department maintains lower the quality of life and foment the type of disorder that resulted in 30 shootings last weekend and Monday -- including a 7-year-old girl wounded in gang crossfire.
      In Detroit, the city's newly released plan to reduce violent crime over the summer refers to the association between "urban blight" and gun violence and vows greater enforcement of noise complaints and traffic offenses and keeping a close eye on vacant lots and buildings.
        In Miami Beach, city officials responded to what they say are "excessively large and unruly spring break crowds" by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a midnight to 6 a.m. curfew through Monday.
          Across the nation, law enforcement initiatives such as these are renewing an old debate over "broken windows" policing -- a controversial strategy involving aggressive enforcement of petty crimes in an effort to restore safety and order in high-crime neighborhoods.
          The return to confrontational tactics popular in the 1990s come after the massive US protest movement that emerged from the May 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white former Minneapolis police officer. His death led to scores of policing reforms some now predict will be undermined by a law enforcement approach that largely targets communities of color. Floyd's fatal police encounter started with a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill used to buy a pack of cigarettes.
          "A lot of the quality-of-life offenses that communities are complaining about they don't know who else to call but the cops," said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society's Cop Accountability Project in New York.
          "Our society has been conditioned to call the cops for every single issue when we shouldn't necessarily be doing that... We throw the cops at everything, which means they are now expected to do more and be more and wear more hats -- many of which they are not able to or qualified to do."

          'You're not going to just do whatever you want'

          NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell on Wednesday unveiled an initiative to reduce shootings and thefts, as well as quality-of-life offenses such as drinking on the streets, loud parties in public spaces and driving with suspended or revoked licenses.
          Sewell and Mayor Eric Adams insist the strategy is not a return to a broken windows policy that helped spur another controversial NYPD practice known as stop-and-frisk -- which was ruled unconstitutional nearly a decade ago for unlawfully targeting Blacks and Latinos.
          "To be clear, this is not a return to 'Stop, Question, and Frisk' -- nor is it 'policing for numbers,' " Sewell said in a statement. "This enforcement will be responsive to community complaints and concerns."
          Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who co-founded Datalytics, which evaluates criminal justice data, said studies have shown more aggressive policing to be ineffective in reducing violent crime.
          "We've learned that stop and frisk is not the answer, that violence reduction can happen independent of that, and we saw that in New York over many years," he said. "So as far as ... data providing credence that we should have more of those policies, I don't think there's any evidence of that."
          The NYPD said that since 2019, calls about drinking on the street more than doubled to 3,193 from 1,452, while calls about loud parties in public spaces jumped to 9,013 from 3,338.
          Reports of people with knives in the transit system have increased 139% in the same time period, according to the NYPD. Calls about subway drug sales jumped by 71%.
          "You're not going to walk into Duane Reade and take whatever you want and walk out," Adams said. "You're not going to hop over the counter and take codeine and other drugs... You're not going to drive motorcycles through the streets, pulling people out and assaulting them merely because of a traffic accident. You're not going to openly inject yourself with drugs. You're not going to just do whatever you want in the city."

          'We won't go back to abusive policing'

          When major crimes in New York City spiked nearly 60% in February compared to the same month in 2021, Adams announced a plan to combat gun violence, crime and homelessness in the subways. Advocates accused the city of criminalizing homelessness.
          Crime in New York reached historic lows over the past three decades before numbers started to go up in 2020 -- a trend that has continued over the last two years and mirrors what is happening in big cities around the country.
          Part of the mayor's response was to bring back the NYPD's controversial anti-crime unit, which was disbanded in August 2020 following racial justice protests and unrest across the country. The unit has been rebranded as Neighborhood Safety Teams tasked with patrolling high-crime neighborhoods.
          On Monday, after another weekend plagued by gun violence, Adams announced the deployment of five additional Neighborhood Safety Teams (NST) across the city. They will work with patrol officers in a more proactive role expanding duties beyond 911 calls.
          The first plainclothes teams, the mayor said, were deployed a week earlier and conducted more than 30 arrests in neighborhoods with 80% of the city's gun violence. Ten of those arrests were for gun possession. The others involved drug sales, suspended or revoked licenses and criminal possession of a knife.
          Adams, a former NYPD lieutenant, insisted this week that the NYPD is not resurrecting the broken windows approach but bolstering public safety while ensuring civil liberties.
          "We are not going back to the policing that I fought to change," said Adams, noting that video technology will be used to monitor the behavior of officers.
          "We won't go back to abusive policing," he added.
          Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the union representing rank-and-file members of the NYPD, voiced support.
          "We will do our part to confront these quality-of-life issues," Lynch said in a statement. "Our communities have been pleading with us to put an end to the lawlessness."

          'Association between urban blight and crime'

          Miami Beach imposed a midnight spring break curfew after two shootings left five people injured.
          Other cities around the country also are dealing with not only the third year of a pandemic but also responding to the deadly crisis of gun violence.
          In Detroit, Police Chief James White this week released a 244-page community safety strategy in response to an increase in violent crime that jumped 13% in 2020 compared to the previous year. In