Despite the looming specter of police brutality, which casts shadows over street corners, neighborhoods and homes across black America, 56 percent of black voters in New York City support “broken windows” policing tactics, compared with 61 percent of the city’s white voters, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll.
The controversial policing style frames community disorder and signs of neglect—such as broken windows, littering and loitering—as indicators of encroaching crime that will lead to more dangerous communities and must be addressed with the full force of the law.
In theory, broken-windows policing, and its variants stop-and-frisk, zero-tolerance and quality-of-life policing, are tactics used by officers who are hyperinvested in keeping communities safe, clean and crime-free. In practice, however, they provide opportunities for racial profiling and resulting antagonistic and abusive encounters between law enforcement and people of color.
This has been evidenced recently by the extrajudicial killing of 43-year-old Staten Island man Eric Garner, a father of six who died after being placed in an illegal choke hold by New York City police Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Garner’s crime? Allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. He can be heard in the heart-wrenching minutes before his death telling officers that their continued harassment of him “ends today.” Moments later, the asthmatic man painfully wheezes his last words: “I can’t breathe.”
Interestingly, when participants in the Quinnipiac poll were asked whether police officers should “actively issue summonses or make arrests for so-called quality of life offenses,” including selling small amounts of marijuana or making loud noise, 60 percent of black voters said yes, a negligible difference from the 59 percent of white voters who said the same.
“It’s different where you live from what you see in the media,” said Quinnipiac University Poll Assistant Director Maurice Carroll. “Overall, black New Yorkers are negative about cops citywide. White voters are positive. But looking at cops in their own neighborhood, the support turns positive among black voters and heavily positive among whites.
“Does it improve the quality of life in your neighborhood when police arrest someone for a low-level offense, or does it increase neighborhood tensions? New Yorkers decide for quality of life,” Carroll added.
In addition, 45 percent of blacks polled believed that officers should use “whatever amount of force is necessary” to make an arrest if a suspect resists, but an overwhelming 90 percent believe that there was no excuse for Pantaleo to place Garner in an illegal choke hold (compared with 52 percent of white voters). And 83 percent of black voters (compared with 50 percent of white voters) believe that Pantaleo should face criminal charges.
These statistics seem to reveal a troubling disconnection between the percentage of blacks who want increased policing in their neighborhoods and the percentage who truly understand what that increased policing entails.
There is a reason that the white voters polled are more likely to consider police officers friends who seldom use excessive force. There is a reason that they don’t fear becoming victims of police brutality.
According to the weekly magazine The Nation, “There were 4.4 million stops by the NYPD between 2004 and 2012. Ten percent of those stops were of Whites, 84 percent were of Blacks and Latinos. Of those 4.4 million stops, only 6 percent led to an arrest, 6 percent to a summons. The remaining 88 percent resulted in no other action—in other words, they involved unequivocally innocent people.”
In the first quarter of 2014, 81 percent of those stopped under stop and frisk—which falls under the broken-windows umbrella—turned out to be innocent of any wrongdoing, and 83 percent of all people stopped were black or Latino.
And with black men being three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white men during an encounter, the question arises: Why would black voters in New York City want a heavier police presence in their neighborhoods if that reality is more likely to lead to more brutality and black deaths?
“If [we are to] assume the study is reliable, then you have to ask, ‘What black people?’ Generally, more middle class and professional people will prioritize protecting property,” said Arlene Eisen, the author and primary researcher of Operation Ghetto Storm, a frequently quoted study on the extrajudicial killing of black people. “Then, you need to consider the level of political education of whoever responded to the survey. This includes what a lot of people call ‘internalized racism’—where black people learn a lot of the same views of themselves as whites. Unfortunately, there is very little in the education system and corporate media to counter the hegemonic status of white supremacy.”
“What black people,” indeed. Older black people are more likely to be registered voters than younger black people, and in populations most affected by police brutality—low-income, black communities—access to a landline or cellphone is not assured. When reading these results, one also has to take into consideration the disenfranchisement restrictions placed on black voters on parole.
That said, it is important to note that some police officers enter into encounters with black people with not only their own racist, preconceived notions of intrinsic black criminality, but also with the support of a judicial system that absolves them of responsibility and accountability while also disproportionately incarcerating black people for low-level, nonviolent crimes.
As Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper, stated, “As a black person, I want to have less encounters with the police rather than more friendly encounters," she said. “There is a level of power that they have that is rarely used for the safety of people who look like me, and is much more often used to antagonize people who look like me.”
That is the entrenched fallacy of broken-windows policing. And though the results of the Quinnipiac poll interrupt the racialized narrative that African Americans are disproportionately anti-police, they also seem to show a disconnection between the desire for safe neighborhoods closely monitored by police and the reality that overpolicing tends to traumatize rather than benefit black communities.
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