Videos emerged in July showing the murder of Eric Garner during his arrest for the sale of unlicensed cigarettes in Staten Island, New York. Garner, 43, was pronounced dead at Richmond University Medical centre on the 17th July 2014 after being forced to the ground and held by the neck by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. During the arrest, the asthmatic Garner declared eight times:  ‘I can’t breathe’. Pantaleo, who has been named in two other incidents of police brutality this year, has been dismissed and the case is pending investigation.

This video came to light just days after the arrest of 22-year-old fare-dodger Ronald Johns in an East Harlem subway station. Videos recorded by onlookers show one officer hold Johns around the neck and repeatedly punch him in the face, whilst another attempts to handcuff him. Onlookers called for officers to ‘stop punching him’.

‘Chokehold arrests’ like these are prohibited according to 1992 NYPD regulation. However, these two incidents reveal the prevalence of such violence within the organisation. In 1994, 29-year-old Anthony Ramon Baez was killed in a chokehold arrest in the Bronx when six police officers attempted to arrest him for ‘disorderly conduct’ after his football hit one of their patrol cars. Francis Livoti, the officer accused of using the chokehold, had faced several accusation of excessive violence, all of which were dismissed by the Civilian Complaints Review Board, an organisation designed to independently investigate cases of police brutality.

From 2009 to 2013 there have been 1,022 complaints surrounding the use of the chokehold by the NYPD alongside countless accusations of the use of excessive force by police officers.

Whilst the controversy over chokehold arrests is symptomatic of a more widespread concern about police brutality in New York City, it had also raised fundamental questions about the philosophical basis of modern policing in the district, commonly known as the ‘Broken Windows Thesis.’

The Broken Windows Thesis proposed originally by criminologists George L. Kellnig and James Q. Wilson, contends that if ‘petty’ crime and incivilities are allowed to go unchecked in a community this signals that the authorities don’t care, allowing for ever higher levels of more serious crimes. This would eventually cause more wealthy residents to move out and house prices to drop, creating a ‘ghetto’. The Broken Windows Thesis provided the rationale for what became known as ‘Zero Tolerance’ policing of the type introduced in New York City in 1993. Under this policy the sale of unlicensed cigarettes, fare-dodging and ‘disorderly conduct’ would all constitute ‘petty’ crimes to be stamped out wherever they appeared. There is yet little evidence that zero tolerance policing has reduced serious crime.

So what is the alternative? In 1996 the Boston Police Department, faced with a 230 per cent increase in youth homicides since the late 1980s embarked on ‘Operation Ceasefire’, in order to reduce gun crime in the district. Having spent two years working alongside local residents in order to improve amenities, the police were well poised to discuss with residents what was to be done about violence in the community. Police used intelligence, much of it coming from local people, to identify and directly contact gang members. Working in conjunction with the police, Boston social services and housing agencies offered gang members job training, counselling, education services and protection from their adversaries if they were willing to reform. Those who refused the offer were informed that even if direct evidence of their gang-related crimes was unavailable they would be pursued relentlessly for unpaid fines, car tax and insurance offences, rent arrears and even unpaid library fines. All this on top of crackdowns on parole and probation violations.

In its four years of operation, Operation Ceasefire brought about a 63 per cent decrease in youth homicides per month making it as one of the most successful police violence reeducation schemes ever. In 2000, with a change of leadership Boston police reverted to a version of Zero-Tolerance policing and youth homicides returned to pre-Ceasefire levels.

Programmes like Operation Ceasefire rely on positive relations between police and the community in order to reach out to criminals in such a way. Zero-Tolerance policing, by contrast, undermines police-community relations and, when coupled with widespread police brutality and racism, destroys them entirely. Antagonism towards officers reduces the likelihood of residents working with law enforcement to provide evidence to allow for the conviction of their peers: ‘snitching’ is frowned upon.

In the USA, punitive policing is dragging more and more of its poorest young people into the criminal justice system every year creating cycles of prison, parole and prison which are well known to root criminals in poverty. If poverty creates crime, and America appears to have accepted the existence of poverty as an unavoidable by-product of capitalism, then the only way to reduce crime is to make criminals socially and economically mobile. Yet, Zero-Tolerance policing and the criminalisation of the poor fatally undermines their employability leaving them open to involvement in the drugs trade, robbery and prostitution as a means of making money. In this sense the philosophy  of ‘Broken Windows’,  and the Zero-Tolerance policing it spawned, is entirely counterproductive in its aims to reduce serious crime and prevent ghettoisation. It is unemployment, depravation and the crime this creates that generates ghettos.

Rev. Kelmy Rodriquez, East Harlem activist described an ‘us-and-them vibe’ between the police and community in New York City, which he says ‘must stop’. He stated ‘the chokehold has to go’ and said the Johns arrest would ‘add more gas to the fire’.

In the cases of both Garner and Baez, their murderers had a history of police misconduct. If we are ever to move forward in our efforts to tackle crime a zero tolerance policy should be adopted towards police brutality and punitive policing.



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