Why Doesn’t NYPD Apply “Broken Windows” to Traffic Violence?

Reading Heather Mac Donald’s impassioned defense of the race-neutral character of NYPD’s stop and frisk program in City Journal this weekend, I was struck by the following statement of an NYPD precinct commander, Inspector Christopher McCormack, exhorting an officer to be more “proactive” in making stops:

“The point here is that 99 percent of the people in this community are great, hardworking people who deserve to walk to the train stop, walk to their car, walk to the store [without fear of getting shot].”

This statement has been put forward as evidence in the federal class action lawsuit Floyd v. City of New York. There, plaintiffs allege that NYPD’s stop and frisk program racially targets minority youth based on tenuous (or no) evidence. Defenders of the program contend that systematic “proactive” stops in high-crime neighborhoods drive crime rates down. The stops have been characterized as a form of “broken windows” policing, through which the targeting of lesser crimes creates an atmosphere of vigilance that is thought to discourage more serious crime.

Why no “broken windows” for traffic violence? Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog first posed this question back in 2009, and persistent advocacy and pressure since then have led to some progress. NYPD recently announced that more crashes would be investigated, and that it would use the more neutral term “collision” to describe these incidents rather than “accidents.” But these changes affect only cases in which the victim is critically injured. In practical terms, NYPD’s announced 50 percent increase in investigators ostensibly would increase crash investigations from the current ~300 to ~450 per year — even though state law mandates that NYPD investigate all of the 3,000-plus NYC crashes each year that result in serious or fatal injury, and NYPD is currently facing a lawsuit brought by my firm to fulfill that mandate.

Do these modest improvements signal a more fundamental change in NYPD’s bias against “suspecting criminality” in cases of traffic violence? One reason for that bias is the traditional requirement that conduct, to be treated as criminal, must be accompanied by an “evil mind” — an intent or at least an awareness of doing harm. And yet, even in hit-and-run cases, where criminality usually by definition exists, NYPD still generally fails to investigate offenders or refer for prosecution unless the case also involves death, or more recently, “critical” injury.  Why do crimes committed with cars so often get a “pass” from NYPD?

Last week brought news of an extremely clear case of NYPD’s double-standard regarding crimes committed with cars, that of John Kelly, who is now a client of our firm. While riding in a bike lane a block from his home, John was struck twice by the driver of a van. The second hit knocked John from his bike and sent him up onto the hood, where he clung for his life as the driver accelerated, crushing John’s bicycle under the van’s wheel. The driver made eye contact with his John throughout the episode, leaving no doubt that this was an intentional assault. After John escaped from the hood, the driver fled the scene.

Miraculously, John’s injuries were minor. Police were summoned to the scene, where they received accounts of the assault from John and several witnesses. Yet the officers’ only response was to complete an “accident report” — what “accident” was that? — and to close the case without any investigation. Apparently “suspecting no criminality,” NYPD ignored strong evidence supporting at least three felony charges (second degree criminal mischief, first degree reckless endangerment, and second degree assault), as well as two misdemeanor charge (reckless driving and  hit-and-run).

John’s case is just one of the more extreme examples of the neglect by NYPD of traffic violence when it is unaccompanied by either driver impairment, or extremely serious injuries coupled with leaving the scene. In January of this year, a hit-and-run driver ran a stop sign in Long Island City and broke the leg of a cyclist, who has since retained our firm. The driver stopped and spoke with his victim before driving off, clearly aware that he had caused injury.  Although the cyclist memorized several characters on the driver’s license plate, as well as the make, color, and model of the vehicle, police responding to the crash scene told the cyclist that there would be no investigation, and none in fact has been conducted.

Last September, a hit-and-run driver sideswiped a cyclist while unlawfully trying to pass her in the Second Avenue “sharrow” lane, breaking her arm. Police refused to obtain red light camera footage that might have identified the driver, forcing me to spend months trying to obtain the footage through the Freedom of Information Law that police could have easily obtained.

Our firm can cite many other similar examples of NYPD failing to investigate hit-and-run drivers who threaten the lives, seriously injure, or destroy the property of cyclists. These are cases in which criminality should not only be suspected, but in which police arrive at the scene to find it has almost already been proven. (As Bike Snob has observed, the investigation of such cases “would be like a nine second episode of ‘Law and Order.'” NYPD’s disparate treatment of gun violence and traffic violence — which kill and injure comparable numbers of New Yorkers each year — is patently bad policy and unfair to crash victims. To paraphrase Commander McCormack’s words: people deserve to walk — or bike — to the train stop, the store, their job or their school without fear of getting killed. It’s time for NYPD to stop ignoring the routine traffic crimes that are the “broken windows” threatening New Yorkers’ personal security on city streets.

  • Jk

    Yes and yes, the NYPD should be both enforcing traffic laws and holding arresting motorists who injure others while breaking the law. But only the first is James Q Wilson type “broken windows” enforcement. By analogy, “broken windows” enforcement is arresting subway turnstyle jumpers before they rob someone.

    So, when it comes to vehicular violence the PD should:

    1. Actually enforce traffic laws, especially for speeding and reckless driving on streets — to reduce the dangerous behavior that ends up killing and injuring pedestrians and cyclists. (The vast majority of NYPD moving enforcement is on the city’s limited access highways. ) Check out “Toward a More Civil City” Winter ’98 City Journal. This article — directly connects “broken windows” to traffic enforcement . It led to Giuliani ordering two police zero tolerance days for traffic enforcement which produced big drops in crashes and were popular with the editorial boards — but not drivers or cops. http://www.city-journal.org/html/8_1_a5.html

    2. Take vehicular crimes against persons seriously, and arrest and charge drivers who kill and injure others while breaking traffic laws. (This is the thrust of your piece.)

    My impression is that Ray Kelly has little interest in traffic enforcement, and that he sees a murder with a gun as being a more serious threat to society than a random killing with a car.(Which is inverted since the odds a New Yorker will be killed by a stranger with a gun or knife are very, very low compared to being killed by a stranger in a car.) Overall, the NYPD simply doesn’t display the energy or zeal it did while retaking the streets from the unlicensed driver plague of the ’90’s or when it actively using TrafficStat from roughly 97 to 07 to target enforcement and change the attitudes of PD commanders.

  • Guest

    What other types of physical assault would the NYPD dismiss out of hand, especially if the victim had exactly the kind of evidence that could lead to an arrest? What kind of culture of violence does Ray Kelly believe is acceptable in New York City?

  • Joe R.

    The big problem with using the broken windows theory as the basis for enforcement is you’ll have police ticketing for many things which are technically illegal but otherwise harmless just to meet their (supposedly nonexistent) ticket quota. I suspect the crackdown on cyclists was driven by exactly that type of mentality. We don’t need more enforcement (at least in terms of the number of tickets) but rather better enforcement. I want police to ticket for actions which are highly likely to cause harm, not those which have a very low probability of causing harm, such such cycling on the sidewalk. For example, I would like to see much less ticketing for tinted windows and not wearing seatbelts, and a lot more ticketing for failure to yield when turning, distracted driving, and aggressive driving. All three are the cause of many fatalities. I’m actually not a big fan of more speeding enforcement for the simple reason police are likely to kill or injure more people chasing down speeders than would be saved. If we’re going to have speed enforcement, it’s probably best left to automated cameras, same as red light enforcement. For its part, the City Council would do well to go through the laws and repeal many of the laws on the books which penalize people for actions which are generally harmless (19-176 is a good place to start). This will force the police to enforce laws against demonstrably harmful actions instead of padding their summons book with many meaningless collars which in the end don’t make things any safer.

  • It’s an excellent post and echoes a question I asked myself about a “broken windows” approach a few months ago: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/10/do-as-you-like-motorists-and-dont-blame.html

    My fear is that the NYPD actually mistakenly thinks it is following a broken windows approach with its traffic policing policy. I suspect that commanders go to community meetings on the Upper East Side and get bombarded with complaints about allegedly “scofflaw” food delivery cyclists and so on. They then go out and harass cyclists as the vocal meeting attendees suggest. The same people don’t, meanwhile, add, “You know what, commander? If you really wanted to make a difference, you’d be out checking the speed I drive some nights up the West Side Highway. Sooner or later I’m going to kill someone.”

    Among other things, the problem is that people (and the NYPD) have such mixed-up risk perception (as I write here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/11/my-ride-to-work-and-why-cars-resemble.html). That gets passed on to the police. People complain about sidewalk cycling but not the kind of driving that’s so reckless it’s likely to end up with a car plowing onto the sidewalk.

    The result is, as you suggest, an atmosphere where there’s no accountability for how people drive and no attempt to address the kinds of behavior that could kill people before the same drivers actually kill people.

    The whole issue is a disgrace – and future generations will look back on the current tolerance of widespread death and maiming on the roads in the same way we look back on racist lynchings and child labor.

  • Bolwerk

    Heather MacDonald comes from the phantasmagorical world of Rand Paul and Richard Mourdock, where authority is never to be questioned, violence by the powerful is always justified, rape is the victim’s fault, it’s not theft is a corporation does it, and oversight of the police amounts to hindrance of a holy crusade. Though she may differ in particulars or extremes, she is just as much either a sociopath or a stupid sociopath. Stop-‘n-frisk/broken windows is an article of faith for these types of people, perhaps not without a tinge of schadenfreude that people of a purportedly inferior race and lower class are being bullied.

    And what is that crap about 99% of them being this or that? An implication that there is a 1% unemployment rate there? That, itself, is a lie meant to deflect the fact that they’re victimizing innocents. The bulk of that neighborhood’s young male population probably have trouble even finding work period, much less work that pays better than minimum wage. And people like Heather have been campaigning to cut off their access to public aid for decades, with success. People in such neighborhoods deserve – I mean, have the right – to be able to walk to their destination without being frisked by thugs in uniform, but no doubt Heather doesn’t see it that way.

    Why shouldn’t broken windows be applied against traffic? It doesn’t work, and it probably never worked that well. Even up until a year or so ago, stop-‘n-frisking was being escalated in the face of continuing a crime decline. It was being escalated because it doesn’t work, not because it does work. Ever greater measures had to be taken to squeeze a tiny bit of useable outcome from it, humiliating many more people than it helped in the process. We can get better traffic outcomes with better strategies, which include enforcement but also thigns like traffic calming and reclaiming road space for other uses.

    As an aside, they don’t apply it against drivers because drivers are Very Important. Maybe some of y’all noticed that they occasionally randomly stop and check the bags of transit users? That is another example of an ineffective, pointless – for its stated purpose, anyway – broken windows strategy in action. They wouldn’t dare do that to drivers, despite roughly the same constitutional problems.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps what the author means by “broken windows” in this context is that NYPD should enforce issues like aggressive driving and “minor” injuries with the expectation that that will prevent major injuries and fatalities.

  • JK and Joe:

    Hit-and-runs not involving a fatality or impairment are misdemeanors, and heretofore have not been investigated much if at all by NYPD. From the NYPD perspective, these are the less serious “broken windows” that have been neglected, however serious most people would consider these crimes.

    I have always taken “broken windows” in the traditional sense to refer to prosecution of vandals–i.e., petty criminals–not prosecution of violations that don’t even rise to the level of crime. For example, spitting in public. Of course, one of the most objectionable aspects of stop & frisk is the number of people stopped for making so-called “furtive gestures,” but NYPD’s position is that these stops are aimed at catching crime…

  • Well said–exactly!

  • Bolwerk

    The theory just goes that where there a broken window, there is an implicit message that someone can break a window to get away with it, and that in turn leads to a process of escalation. Which may even be a little bit true sometimes, but it fails to account for much more complex forces that enter into the equation like…motivation, empathy, pride of place? (How many people just break windows for the hell of it anyway?)

    But it’s simple, so people who think in simple terms (Heather MacDonald) adore it.

  • Bolwerk

    Evidently, one where piggies can lay their grubby fingers on anyone they please without regard for the person’s dignity or the U.S. constitution. :-

  • Great piece, Steve, as usual.

    Here’s an unpublished letter to Ed. that I sent to the daily news in 2005:

    Dear Voicers,

    It’s a tragedy that so many New Yorkers are injured and killed
    by motor vehicle drivers. The real crime, however, is the
    dangerous driving. Fleeing the scene is merely an aggravating

    I suggest that the police employ Giuliani’s heralded “Broken
    Windows” policy and come down hard on lesser motor vehicle
    crimes such as honking, speeding and red-light running, in order
    to weed out those scofflaws who do not take the repsonsibilities
    of driving seriously.

  • Jk

    The transit police under Bill Bratton and Jack Maples reduced subway crime enormously by doing two things that were based on analyzing crime data. First, they arrested turnstile jumpers — not chewing gum droppers — because they figured out that the same people jumping the turnstyle were committing other crimes, and were more likely to have arrest warrants. Second, Bratton beefed up warrant squads, and aggressively went after the human crime waves committing disproportionately large numbers of robberies. (Some criminologists say that was more important than turnstyle enforcement.)

    Subway crime and vehicular crime aren’t identical problems, but using data to drive policing strategies is now commonplace, as are the kinds of “predictive analytics” used by the mayor’s office and the PD’s CompStat. Problem is, the public isn’t seeing any sign of intelligent life with the NYPD’s traffic enforcement; whether it is preventing crashes before they happen, or holding dangerous motorists accountable after they injure or kill someone.

    Safe, speeding enforcement is possible on NYC streets, and is done in different ways: one cop clocks vehicle speed, then another, often a motorcycle pulls the motorists over up the street, usually stopped at a red light, or one cop does the same on a straightaway near a light. Might there be a cheaper alternative that gets the same benefit? Maybe, that’s exactly what the PD should be constantly trying to figure out.

    Unfortunately, as Steve’s article emphatically demonstrates, in this era of bike bell summonses, $1000+ tickets for cyclists going through red lights and zero charges for killer motorists, it seems like a utopian notion to expect the cops to actually pursue a rational strategy for reducing traffic deaths and injuries, and restoring some sense of safety and civility on the streets.

  • Prescient of you, Steve! I do believe there is an opportunity to get a meaningful dialogue going with whomever will be selecting our next Police Commissioner.

  • Larry Littlefield

    A related question is why the “broken windows” theory was not applied to white collar crime. We basically have ended up with a white collar riot.

  • Joe R.

    I agree with you if the broken window refers to hit-and-runs as you mentioned. As I recall, when the NYPD under Giuliani first applied the broken windows theory, they went after turnstyle jumpers, squeegee men, aggressive panhandlers, petty vandals and the like. This was fine as these were often “gateway crimes”. A few years later it progressed to things like myself getting a ticket while riding on an empty sidewalk in Queens at 10 PM while returning a rented tape (this was in 1999). I fail to see how that qualifies as either a danger to the public or a gateway crime. Unfortunately, Bloomberg largely continued this policy, but at the same time continues to ignore the daily carnage on the streets.

  • Joe R.

    Thanks, that’s exactly what I meant in my earlier post. Police all too often enforce laws by public fiat-if the public complains about a particular issue, even if the issue is more a low-level annoyance than a real danger, then this issue gets police priority. It didn’t take many complainers for the NYPD to unleash its bulldogs on cyclists. In fact, the NYPD did its job so well (except with regards to motor vehicle crime) that residents in places like the UES found little to complain about other than the delivery guys. Too bad the local precinct commanders didn’t do what I would have done-namely tell them statistically sidewalk cycling and slow-rolling through red lights don’t pose a danger to the public, and therefore don’t merit aggressive enforcement. I might also have added that the police would in fact ticket any really dangerous cases they saw (if they could safely catch the offending cyclist), but in general didn’t consider this a problem worth any extra attention. Policing should be done based on statistics and merit. Resources should be directed to crimes posing the most danger to the general public. Right now in all honestly this is motor vehicle crimes in most areas of the city.

  • AdamDZ

    NYPD needs to but back in their place as public servants. They show way too much disregard for public welfare in general. It’s not just drivers vs. cyclists. NYPD lack of courtesy, professionalism and respect is seen everywhere. On top of that there is no accountability, unless they shoot someone.


Personal Security and Livable Streets

Yesterday’s watershed decision in Floyd v. New York, in which federal Judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD’s stop and frisk program unconstitutional, has thrown a spotlight on the issue of personal security. Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Kelly at his side, utterly rejected the decision, suggested it would directly result in increased violent street crime, and vowed an […]

Broken Streets Theory: How to Alter the Psychology of Reckless Driving

Jessie Singer has a great feature in the latest issue of TA’s Reclaim magazine (now available online), examining the NYPD’s failure to curb dangerous driving. After pushing down violent crime rates so effectively based on data-driven analysis, she asks, why don’t police use the same techniques to tame the life-threatening hazards of New York City […]