Debate Panel On The Future of Policing Brings No Easy Answers

Heather Mac Donald. / Gage Skidmore

A debate panel held at the campus Student Center on Tuesday thoroughly discussed and debated the current controversies revolving around policing, the relationship between the police and the black community and crime in black neighborhoods. The debate was moderated by Robert Cherry, a Brooklyn College professor of economics.

However, the two debaters, Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale and columnist Heather MacDonald frequently found themselves agreeing with each other to varying degrees on several topics, such as the extent of racial profiling done by law enforcement, the place that “culture” has in the issue of “black-on-black” crime issue, how the police should handle the mentally ill, the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, and the overburdening of police officers in society.

There were a few topics where the two clashed. One of those topics was the effectiveness of “broken windows” policing.

The “broken windows” policing philosophy maintains that if police behave proactively in high-crime areas, then more serious crimes are less likely to occur. One prominent feature of this philosophy is the controversial procedure “stop-and-frisk,” which was heavily touted and used by the NYPD under the Bloomberg administration.

In the last few years however, the use of the tactic was de-emphasized by the current de Blasio administration and the NYPD favor the use of a “precision policing” tactic to drive down crime in dangerous areas without relying as heavily as they did on stop-and-frisk.

“The broken windows theory in its essence says that people left to their own devices will run wild in the streets and the only way to restore civility, especially in ‘certain communities,’ is for the police to micromanage those public behaviors,” argued Vitale. “I think that is fundamentally problematic and we should always look to reestablishing the ability of communities to self-manage themselves and heavy-handed policing is the worst possible way to do that.”

But MacDonald argued that this style of policing is mainly responsible for New York City’s current low crime rates and said that Vitale’s characterization of “broken windows” was “wrong”.

“I am not making this up: this is what people in the community want,” said MacDonald. “It is not any kind of racial agenda on their part and the police take the problems as they find them.” MacDonald described “broken windows” policing as a tactic that was requested by the residents of high crime neighborhoods, not something that the police foisted onto those communities.

“It’s not the police generating this idea out of the blue, it’s what people are asking them [for]. They want the same sort of order in the streets that people in other neighborhoods take for granted,” explained MacDonald.

The two also disagreed on the how useful community groups, such as gang interrupters, were when it came to driving down crime.

Vitale argued that alternatives to policing were needed to solve the crime problem. “What we hear from gang interrupters and other community-based anti-violence workers is that when they’re trying to reach out to these kids and bring them into pro-social activities, get them off the streets, get them out of the gangs…the police play a role in driving them back into these situations.” Vitale said that by putting at-risk youth into juvenile detention centers and jails, they “have no choice but to relate to the existing gang structures.”

MacDonald countered that these types of anti-violence programs and initiatives have been around since the 1960s and said that programs like Gary Slutkin’s “Cure Violence” program in Chicago have “shown no long-term effects”.

“So it’s really an empirical question of what works,” said MacDonald, “and if researchers can come up with programs after 40 years of trying that can have as good an effect on saving lives as data-driven proactive policing [then] we should do it and bring the police back and do not use them as assertively as we need to.”

Alex Vitale. / Twitter @avitale


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