Liberals, Trojan Horses and the Myth of Police-Community Relations

Often, the loudest voices pushing the idea that we should build (rebuild and rebuild) trust between communities and police belong to seemingly sympathetic liberals. Conversations that focus on this ever-elusive “trust,” however, sidestep calls from the grassroots that say we need a fundamentally different relationship with police – not simply a less suspicious one. The recent shooting deaths of two NYPD officers have now thrown that conversation into disarray, but there was never reason to believe people could or should kiss and makeup with cops.

In New York this year, a seemingly nonstop parade of police brutality videos followed by massive protests in December after the choking death of Eric Garner and the non-indictment of his killer have raised penetrating questions over a historically fraught relationship with cops. Protesters in the streets – continuing to connect the dots from Ferguson to New York that Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t want them to connect – aren’t just defiant, they’re fed up.

And rightly so. There have been plenty of dots just this year in addition to the killings of Garner and, more recently, Akai Gurley: in 2014, cops roughed up a Latino student in Queens, telling him to get a “taco”; bloodied an 84-year old Asian man, trying to cite him for jaywalking; wrestled a Black man for having his leg on subway seat; threw a 14-year old Black teen through a window; broke the face of a young Black man for fare-beating; assaulted a Black man in the teeth with the tip of a gun; kicked a Mexican street vendor in the back; and even threw a pregnant Colombian woman to the ground.

But the early rhetoric this year from de Blasio focused on improved police-community relations. Recently, the mayor doubled down, claiming, in fact, that relations had improved. Those words rang hollow when a video of Daniel Pantaleo choking Garner over some cigarettes emerged. Almost 1,000 miles away, protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting death of Michael Brown had demonstrators face to face with cops outfitted like occupying soldiers. Streets there were becoming ground zero for a reawakened national policing movement that would soon light a fire in New York.

Amid the marches, a crucial factor linking the cases of Brown and Garner, while also undercutting the nagging narrative of “trust,” pointed at something familiar to New Yorkers: the Broken Windows theory of policing. Arguably the dominant policing philosophy in America, the theory was ushered into New York City by Bill Bratton in the ’90s and subsequently exported to other cities over the years.

Broken Windows policing obsessively focuses on low-level crime and “disorder” as a means to prevent larger crime. We can, in fact, draw a direct line between Broken Windows and the interaction that brought Pantaleo and Garner together in July. After the Garner death, Bratton, back in New York under de Blasio, defended his signature policing theory and insisted that the NYPD was “not a racist organization.”

“Are there more minorities impacted by enforcement? Yes. I’m not denying that… But it’s not an intentional focus on minorities. It’s a focus on behavior.”

In Ferguson, Mike Brown was walking off the curb with his friend before his interaction-turned-altercation with Darren Wilson ended in gunshots. Ferguson, like other towns in the St. Louis area, closely follows the tenets of Broken Windows. One town over, in Jennings, Missouri, the police department’s “zero-tolerance” policing parallels Bratton’s – funneling cops into Black neighborhoods while strictly enforcing small violations and crimes.

“If there’s a violation, whether it’s something as simple as . . . an outstanding warrant or a traffic violation, there’s a zero-tolerance policy . . . And the good citizens of the precinct that we patrol appreciate that, because it has had a very positive impact on crime stats,” said one St. Louis cop. “We put police where crime is, and we saturate areas where we’re trying to displace crime . . . And through no fault of their own, a lot of young black men are right in the middle of that,” said another.

Wrapped in a veneer of purportedly colorblind crime-fighting objectivity, Broken Windows policing today indulges in a multitude of tactics to create mass interactions with people, mostly in communities of color. Yet instead of having a conversation about how we’ve perhaps managed to codify racism through law enforcement, aka the Black Codes, we’re given a thick layer of public relations in the name of community policing.

This past September marked 20 years since the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Passage of the largest crime bill in history coincided with the first year Bratton began to steer the NYPD toward aggressive, “pro-active” policing. The bill, signed by Bill Clinton and written by Joe Biden, both Democrats, provided funding for more than 100,000 new cops across the nation and enjoyed broad bipartisan support from a congress looking to be tough on crime. The complex bill also established the Department of Justice’s office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). Serving primarily as a conduit for federal money working its way down into local police coffers, COPS perhaps began in earnest a national framework for community policing, which it defines as a “philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to . . . crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.”

If that’s not clear, you’re not alone. Few understand what “community policing” is. On paper, it advocates cops working with community groups and institutions to “proactively” police communities. This can mean a community affairs officer at local events, maybe even organizing youth programs. More often than not “community policing” is public relations mixed in with attempts by cops to build a rapport with community members who might come in handy down the road.

More importantly, “community policing,” at its core, serves as a Trojan horse for more policing and more funding of it. At the end of September, outgoing US Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new $124 Million grant from COPS to police departments across the country. He emphasized “community policing.” Earlier this month, President Barack Obama, sitting down with officials including one Mayor de Blasio, called for more “trust” and announced a $263 million initiative – paying for body cams and training – to go along with a new task force that would work with COPS to bolster the concept of “community policing.”

Community policing today is little more than a talking point, an echo. Bratton, who originally scoffed at the idea of cops as “social workers,” now embraces what he calls “collaborative” policing. And while local police unions laugh at it, community policing’s most strident advocates are liberals who fundamentally believe in the role of the police as it stands.

The liberal mind that says government, even that which dons a gun and badge, should be the guarantor of “civility” and “order” are natural proactive policing champions. De Blasio certainly falls into that category, with his embrace of Broken Windows, though he’s not alone. A long list of local Democrats from former mayor David Dinkins, often associated with community policing, to failed mayoral candidate Mark Green, who openly courted Bratton and his zero-tolerance approach, fit the bill. And don’t forget Clinton and Biden’s omnibus bill, which was all about adding more cops to the beat.

Eyebrows would be raised if more people knew that George Kelling, coauthor of the article that birthed Broken Windows theory, was influenced by liberal icon Jane Jacobs and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Or that the great liberal piggy bank, the Ford Foundation, created the Police Foundation, which funded the Kelling’s research on Broken Windows.

Burdened with the responsibility of policing us for our own good, liberalism loves a good cop – and would just like us to be more trusting of them.

Thankfully, the tired trope of “trust” may be on its last legs. While “community policing” sound bytes might buy politicians time, they’ve done little to affect people’s distrust of the police. And that’s a good thing. Distrust of cops is not only justified; it’s healthy. The video of Garner’s last moments might not have been taken if the community trusted those Staten Island cops. And then there’s the long view of police that goes back generations. Those old enough to have felt the teeth of police dogs as well as the young people marching today don’t need much to be reminded of that crucial ingredient in American policing’s historical relationship with communities of color, Blacks in particular: violence.

This isn’t necessarily news, but it does shatter the myths around police-community relations. Forced to make a sobering assessment of what our relationship with cops actually is and not simply striving to make nice, we must move beyond the public relations attempts of Obama and, locally, de Blasio.

De Blasio, quick to reference his bi-racial son, still speaks of bringing us closer to cops instead of setting boundaries. And while boundaries must be strengthened and clear lines drawn, the size and power of the police must also be dramatically rolled back or else nothing will have changed. The concept of “community policing” works in the exact opposite direction – seeking to blur those lines and expand the size and scope of the police.

Reformers should also note that the primary alternative to expanded policing is stronger communities – not by melding the two together, but by replacing the former with the latter. A radical new shift toward social investment that addresses the root causes of crime, such as poverty, doesn’t require cops, but does require resources. The 2015 budget for the NYPD will be over $4.7 billion, not including the private fundraising capabilities of the Police Foundation (that little known police cash cow funded primarily by wealthy donors). This belongs in the hands of the community. Police-community relations don’t simply boil down to whether a cop tips his or her hat or hosts basketball tournaments; they’re more directly tied to the role of police in our city as indicated by their share of our resources.

Some people, though, won’t change course or take their feet off the gas. Doubling down on the zero-tolerance views that shape zero-tolerance policies, champions of aggressive policing know they reinforce antagonism toward police, but they’ve learned how to adapt.

At the beginning of the year, Bratton announced he’d be tweaking a key Ray Kelly era program, Operation Impact, which floods high-crime neighborhoods with cops, but which people criticized as excessive. Bratton, harping on the idea of collaboration, announced that street cops would be paired with merchants and clergy members (often the most hawkish neighborhood voices on crime) to help identify potential criminals. Here was “community policing” not as a talking point, but as a reality on the ground. In it, one couldn’t help but sense a faint reminder of hearts-and-minds strategies devised by military occupiers.

Ultimately though, tweaks and reforms won’t satisfy the thousands of people who continue to march, disrupt the city and risk arrest. The core values of demonstrators are not only incompatible with men like Bratton, they are in conflict with them. People in the street see the criminal justice system as a problem, not a solution. Policy-makers and authorities couldn’t disagree more. Take the interesting parallels between comments Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder made recently about Ferguson unrest to remarks made by both Bratton and Broken Windows cofounder Kelling earlier this year:

Kinder: “We do not do justice in America in the streets, though. We have legal processes that are set in motion, that are designed after centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence tradition. They’re designed to protect the rights and liberties of everyone involved.”

Bratton, arguing after the Garner death that New Yorkers want more policing, similarly insisted “You must submit to arrest . . . The place to argue your case is in court, not in the streets.” Kelling, explaining to an audience at the Manhattan Institute how 19th century British policing set the stage for modern-day policing, introduced Bratton as “one of the three most important police leaders in the history of policing in the Anglo-Saxon world.”

All three of these men share not only a staunch belief in our criminal justice system and an affinity for the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but they also wield the power to impose their ideas on our communities. Until their ideas are unearthed and examined, both in New York and across the country, there will be little, if any, of the change that so many people are marching for.