Watching the brutal video of the police bringing down Eric Garner, never to get up again, I though about Mo and his cousins at the Ditmas Park bodega I bought my loosies from for years. They’re part of the neighborhood, keeping an eye on the street and watching out for their neighbors. They don’t sell to strangers, to avoid fines or losing their license to sell smokes, but they don’t worry about getting arrested, let alone killed.
It’s a permanent tension, that in rightly focusing their efforts where crime is highest, police can easily make criminals of the people they’re charged with protecting, and upping the opportunities for the sort of ugly encounters that leave scars, or worse.
Garner, who had a lengthy record for selling loosies and other petty things, was someone who the cops and EMTs Thursday plainly saw as a skell — even as the people from his neighborhood now mourning him describe someone very different, a good-natured father of six who, like Mo, helped break up fights and keep an eye on his street.
When Mayor de Blasio brought Bill Bratton back to serve a second stint as police commissioner, he gave a double mandate: keep crime down to its current record low, and give a peace dividend to the people in high-crime neighborhoods after a decade in which over-reliance on stops and frisks left too many decent citizens in dangerous neighborhoods resentful of the police.
It remains to be seen if those are compatible goals. With the number of stops having plummeted, Bratton has relied, as he did in his first stint as commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, on broken windows policing — the idea that going after small crimes or signs of disorder helps stop larger ones.
When Bratton first took the job, in 1994, there had been 2,420 murders the previous year. Last year, there were 333. Some things that couldn’t be overlooked back then perhaps should be now.
But so far Bratton, as Kelly did before him, has pressed cops to keep the pressure up and the numbers down. With less serious crime, that means a lot of interactions between police officers and people who’ve done nothing much, or nothing at all, wrong.
To enforce the law on our behalf, we empower the police to use force and, no matter how well trained they are, every encounter has a chance of going wrong.
It’s crucial police are focused on laws that matter, and enforcing them fairly. But right now, there’s a “common sense” standard about who and what warrants police attention, with all the potential for violence, arrests and more that brings.
Open-air drinking isn’t allowed, but no one thinks twice about uncorking wine at Bryant Park movie nights. As I wrote about pot last week, the same thing can’t be a crime in East Flatbush, but okay in Ditmas Park, or for a black kid but not his white pal.
If Bratton really wants to bring the temperature down, he may need to simply have police make fewer arrests for small things, and find other ways to ensure his officers remain active in dealing with real crimes. That is, treat people in every park like they’re in Bryant Park.
And the truth is that if that happens, crime is likely to go up some — and this newspaper and many New Yorkers will bitterly protest any upward tick, as will the victims of those crimes.
But I don’t want New York to be Singapore, where people get caned for spitting gum on the sidewalk, any more than I want it to go back to the murder peak of the late 1980s. That it must be one or the other is, obviously, a false choice.
Yes, many of the advocates now calling for Bratton’s head are reflexive critics of all policing. But the commissioner and mayor need to decide how much enforcement they want, for how much crime.
There’s a point at which aggressive policing makes criminals of people for committing harmless acts — drinking in a park, say, or smoking a joint on their stoop or even just jaywalking.
Cops and civilians engage in millions of encounters a year, each with a small chance of going wrong. How many don’t may be underappreciated. But every needless one risks another Garner. And with every phone a camera now, there’s no hiding the violence when it happens.
As George Kelling, the co-author of the original broken windows article and a consultant to Bratton, told me last week, the point of quality-of-life enforcement was never to criminalize people, but to keep order and shift behavior: “We were never interested in a mounting number of arrests.” That’s right.
“Many people that own stores sell illegal cigarettes,” said Ellisha Flagg , Garner’s sister. “They lose their license, not their lives.”