When 'Broken Windows' Leads to Busted Heads

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pallbearers carry out the casket of Eric Garner after the funeral service at the Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty)

Many across New York are still struggling to understand how Eric Garner — the Staten Island man accused of the minor crime of selling loose cigarettes — could wind up dead after five cops took him to the ground in a violent arrest.  Some are portraying the death as a freak incident.

But a review of court records and arrest data, along with interviews of attorneys, law enforcement experts and citizens, show it’s not uncommon for low-level arrests to spiral dangerously out of control – in some cases leaving people accused of minor offenses seriously hurt.

“One thing you learn as a police officer is minor violations make people flip out sometimes in a way that robbery, domestic violence and murder do not,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City Police Officer who now teaches law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “People will take the tack that, you know, ‘What are you bothering me for? Don’t you have anything better to do?’”

The NYPD says it has no data that would show how often its officers use force in arrests for low level crimes. But court records hint at the scale of the issue.

In New York City over the past decade, cops made 55,000 arrests where the top charge was resisting arrest, according to data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

That means the misdemeanor or infraction cops originally pursued was less serious than what happened during the arrest.

“I would say an overwhelming majority of the time when you see resisting arrest tacked on to a very low -level disorderly conduct charge or a marijuana charge, what you will hear and come to learn is that there was some altercation that went on — and typically it is the person being arrested who shows some injury,” said Robin Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, a public defender and social service organization.

The city’s police union did not respond to an interview request. But Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, did talk about use of force in the Garner case.

“We don’t have a choice when there’s a violation of law. We must place that person under arrest,” Lynch said in a video posted on the union’s website. “This person made it clear that he was not going to go. The police officers only wanted to bring him to the ground to place him under arrest and bring him to the station house.”

To be sure, people do resist arrest. And law enforcement experts say acting quickly and with force can actually keep a situation from getting out of hand.

But some like Steinberg say cops can be the ones who escalate a situation. She said that's especially a problem given the department’s adherence to the ‘Broken Windows’ theory of policing. That’s the belief that stopping quality-of-life offenses will keep larger crimes from happening.

She said when officers go after small-time criminals as aggressively as they would violent criminals, "it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re much more likely to escalate confrontations and overstep the bounds of their authority."

Other charges that can signal that an arrest turned violent are special felony assault charges for people accused of injuring a cop or other public safety worker. Those are the top charges in more than 1,300 cases each year. But disposition data shows the charges rarely hold up in court.

Attorneys said that’s because in many cases it’s the citizen who was hurt, but some cops add the assault charge to justify their use of force.

Former Assistant District Attorney turned defense attorney Dietrich Epperson said he handled around a dozen such cases when he was a prosecutor in Queens. He said he found almost all of them suspect.

“The officer usually almost immediately knows there’s going to be a problem. The suspect is basically asking for medical attention and they know ‘Uh-oh, this victim’s going to go down to the hospital and we need to go into protection mode,’” Epperson said.

Blayn Crosson found himself in that situation. Two summers ago, he was driving in his Brooklyn neighborhood when cops pulled him over as part of the controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

According to a lawsuit he filed in state court, a short time after the interaction he saw the same cops stopped at a light near his house. So he approached their van and asked for their badge numbers.

He said they refused. So Crosson walked around to the front of the van to look at the license plate, which is when the cops piled out. By stepping in front of their van, he was allegedly engaging in disorderly conduct, which can be charged when someone obstructs traffic.

Crosson pulled his arm away when a cop tried to grab him, at which time they started hitting him, he said.

“I don’t even remember how long I was on my feet for, because it was just arms and legs, arms and legs, coming from everywhere,” Crosson said, adding that he didn’t put up a fight. “If I’d have fought back, they would have killed me out there.”

Crosson ended up needing staples in his head. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer. The charges were ultimately dismissed and he’s filed a lawsuit against the officers, court records show.

The city’s law department declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending. The NYPD did not respond to an interview request.

In a press conference after Garner’s death, Police Commissioner William Bratton said he will continue to aggressively pursue quality of life offenses. But he also said there could be other ways to handle people accused of such crimes.

“If it requires arrest, fine. But if it only requires an admonition — ‘Move along, you can’t do that.’ — Well, I want to make sure our officers understand that they’re given great powers of discretion,” Bratton said.

He also said NYPD officers will be retrained on the use of force.


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Comments [22]

Mike from NYC from NYC

Perhaps if people didn't call the police with a complaint for every little misdemeanor or infraction we wouldn't be having all these petty arrests and the police screwing up where people die. If a person is hustling loose cigarettes, selling a soft drug like marijuana, taking bets and gambling or a down low call girl is doing their thing discreetly without bringing any problems to the area just live and let live. If a person is breaking a minor law, infraction or misdemeanor and is costantly starting problems that could lead to someone getting hurt then that should be addressed and it is understandable why they are reporting it to the police. However a lot of times a people call the police because they are jealous that some small time hustler can make a couple of hundred dollars a day tax free and they will rat him or her out in a heartbeat because they are miserable envious people. People should learn to mind their own business and avoid calling the police and being rats when it comes to B.S. stuff like selling loose cigarettes.

Aug. 10 2014 04:29 AM

James from Bay Ridge...

Your comment was honest and insightful. Thank you.

Jul. 28 2014 03:10 PM
james from bay ridge

My whole life in nyc I have witnessed the cops overreact with minor offenses and often become violent with people just questioning their authority. IT IS LEGAL TO QUESTION POLICE HARASSMENT. I have witnessed cops defuse situations by leveling with the person and being human, and I have witnessed cops escalate situations by becoming aggressive and forceful when none of which were needed. Unfortunately, its more the latter.

This is nyc; not texas. Small offenses don't need bloody noses and force.

Jul. 28 2014 03:03 PM

John from Office...

Your comment is downright offensive.

Jul. 28 2014 02:39 PM
Joe Assante from Liberty Corner

To respond to Chris from Brooklyn, NY...

Please explain how "the Police's perception was that this person was going to be trouble" justified use of a chokehold when Department policy prohibits chokeholds during arrests (unless you know of an exception to this policy). From viewing the video, I cannot see how one can say a chokehold was not used by one of the officers, but maybe you have a different interpretation

Chris, I am not trying to justify a chokehold. However, I am saying that Mr. Garner's responses did lead the Police to indicate that this wasn't going to go well. Mr. Garner also indicated that he had run in's with the Police before. He felt he was being harassed by the Police. If, your definition of harassment is breaking the law repeatedly and being caught repeatedly, than yes he was. Everyone continues to be intellectually dis-honest about that point.
I wasn't there, and watching the video doesn't put you there either. Ever watch a game show? Ever yell at the screen the answer to a seemingly simple trivia question? You aren't there. I have been on TV show, with the live studio audience. The heat of the lights, the intensity of the room, the feelings of what's riding in the balance of your's not the same as watching from home.
The Police are there. In that moment, they have to make a split decision how to defend themselves, protecting their lives, all the time listening to their gut. They make the call to defend themselves based on the threat and the tone and feel of the conversation. No one can judge their actions in that moment unless they were there at the moment. It's the way it is.

Jul. 28 2014 02:34 PM
gene from NYC

>>3-4 nights a week, groups of 20 or more people gather in the streets in front of my building... How do I respect my neighbors quality of life

How about your _other_ neighbors, the ones in their homes, those suffering from the same noise pollution as you?

They may be sick and need their sleep; they may have to get up in the morning and go to work; their kids may have to get some rest before school. Respect THEM, over those who have no consideration for their own neighbors.

My neighbor had to fight for 10 years to get motorcyclists from gathering outside her 5th floor window. I was in that apartment. You couldn't talk, couldn't listen to music, couldn't watch TV, even with all the windows and curtains closed.

Jul. 28 2014 11:27 AM
steve from queens

it is so so wrong to keep picking on black youth for these minor offenses - particularly when committed on private property. I am white and I live in a white nabe and some of us here feel as though we need a patrol car dedicated to our neighborhood. because of the absence of intensive policing here, I could sit on my front steps and roll joints from 7 am to 7 pm all week long and not see one cop go by. but for folks in other neighborhoods, just because of where they are (and it is not like they are sitting on the steps of city hall or they are on a block of mansions on the upper east side) they get busted - for doing something that a lot of middle class white people do without any fear of retribution. this kind of behavior in itself - never mind the breaking of heads - divides the community.

In so far as why the police behave like this, I doubt training will fix it. there are men in this world who run on instinct like animals and they may also suffer from what is known as "small penis syndrome", when someone challenges the authority of men who work on instinct or have small penises, they over compensate and use much more force than necessary to diffuse a situation. by resisting arrest, that gentleman challenged these officers and this is the result. the only way to fix it is to hire people who are confident about their own self worth and masculinity, not men who must always be out to prove themselves. in other words, hire men who are more concerned about appearing intelligent and less concerned about being right all the time and these problems will diminish.

you know, I was riding in the back of a car with some kids (young kids, under 6) in Ireland one time and a police car came up behind us and pulled us over. it was so unexpected that the siren scared the stuff out of us adults and the kids were just plain scared anyway. The cop was quite aware that he scared us all and spent a moment talking to us and smiling and apologizing for scaring us before getting down to the business of writing the ticket he had to writing the driver (cell phone). you know, the sir and mam stuff helps but if the police here could spread a little more charm around as they do their jobs, it may work wonders for the community. Maybe that is a lot to ask, maybe the customers are too aggressive here for that, I don't know.

Jul. 28 2014 11:08 AM
matt from Inwood

This is a question about how the police react to low level crimes as a new citizen of New York. I have lived in the Inwood neighborhood for several months now and 3-4 nights a week, groups of 20 or more people gather in the streets in front of my building; drinking beer, grilling food, and using their car stereos to play music so loud, I often have trouble sleeping, even with ear plugs. I hesitate to call the police and report this, because I certainly don't want anyone getting in trouble, going to jail, or worse, because no one ever seems to get violent and I don't feel in danger in any way, but I wouldn't mind the noise being controlled. What should I do? How do I respect my neighbors quality of life, wanting to have a good time with their friends, with my own needs, without involving a police force that I fear would overreact to a situation? I just wondered what other people thought about this situation.

Jul. 28 2014 11:02 AM
gary from queens

The solution is better training of police and informing the public on the proper way to address police when they approach you.

The solution is not to discontinue broken windows, because my neighborhood was turned around completely when anti graffiti laws were enforced. Same with noise complaints. quality of life improves, and less lawlessness follows. it really works.

Jul. 28 2014 10:44 AM
gene from NYC

>> It is clear from the Garner video that he was in no way resisting arrest

WHAT?? Of course he was; you see how you react when someone starts wildly flinging 40lbs of meat at your head.

So now we lionize this addicter of kids (the biggest purchasers of "loosies;" think he carded his customers??).

And did you see the videos of how that AK-47-weilding carjacker got taken down?


It certainly can be abused, but taking away the technique seems crazy when cops are faced with truly violent offenders. for taking down the

Jul. 28 2014 10:40 AM
Chris from Brooklyn, NY

To Joe Assante:

Please explain how "the Police's perception was that this person was going to be trouble" justified use of a chokehold when Department policy prohibits chokeholds during arrests (unless you know of an exception to this policy). From viewing the video, I cannot see how one can say a chokehold was not used by one of the officers, but maybe you have a different interpretation.

Jul. 28 2014 09:52 AM
Joe Assante from Liberty Corner

Instead of immediately jumping to the Police and the feeling they need additional training, perhaps the discussion needs to go to Public awareness of how to act/react when a Police Officer approaches you.

Mr. Garner was breaking the law. A small law relevant to Murder or some larger crime but, a law none the less. That's what brought to Police to him in the first place. Even if he wasn't, and they just came to him to inquire, immediately his "shields" went up and the Police's perception was that this person was going to be trouble.

People need to understand that they approach 100's of people and it's their job to access threat levels. What keeps Police officers alive is that they gauge danger quickly. An immediate confrontational attitude is going to raise a red flag to the Police that this could end hostile.

If the Police access that the person they talk to is being respectful and cooperative their actions/attitudes will mirror the person they have stopped. This needs to be addressed and spoken about. Thank you.

Jul. 28 2014 09:34 AM

This story only scratches the surface of the larger deeper global issues of policing and of how the criminal justice prison industrial complex is part of a culture that actually/perversely creates the crime and the poverty and the misery and the suffering and the horror off of which it feeds...all in the name of "law and order". Millions of well paid middle class people owe their livings to a sick status quo that creates scores of millions of criminals and the incarceration of millions more. All of this costs us hundreds of billions of dollars a year.....and trillions of you take into account the lost productivity of all of those millions of people doing more useful constructive things with their lives.

Also the existing system creates a class of people who will never vote and many times that number who don't see themselves as having any political power.....which is exactly what the people profiting from the status quo desire most.

At the very least we need to put cameras on all cops and correction officers that will record audio and video of every moment that they are on active duty. And that's just for starters. What's really needed is a massive program to completely eradicate all poverty in America. The end result of such an effort would not "bankrupt" us, which is what the Republicans would say...but to actually create far more wealth than it would cost as it would also greatly improve the quality and the length of life for all Americans. Such a transformation would set an example for the rest of the world far more potent than our current foreign policy based on mostly raw military power.

It's all connected.

Jul. 28 2014 09:06 AM
john from office


I can only imagine the howls when that video is shown, a large blackman being lassoed by the NYPD. Same goes for Tazers, dogs or any form of restraint, it is not pretty to bring someone under control. Those who claim to be experts should try it some time.

Jul. 28 2014 08:55 AM
Isabel from queens

I think the police ought to be trained to use the lasso and, instead of choking and slugging or shooting their suspects, rope them and tie them up. Maybe a couple of officers can rope a really big suspect, but they've got to avoid putting nooses around the neck, which could be a problem.

Jul. 28 2014 08:38 AM
Jonathan Wacks from Brooklyn

It is clear from the Garner video that he was in no way resisting arrest; if by that we mean physically resisting. He pleaded to be left alone, that's it. There was absolutely no reason to jump him and apply a choke hold. Issue him a ticket for selling cigarettes without a permit. But they murdered him. Forget the "broken window" theory. It is akin to "zero tolerance." Neither has a place in a society based on the rule of law. Each case must be considered on its own terms and not as part of some over-arching ideology.

Jul. 28 2014 08:35 AM

NYC has a death penalty for poor people who attempt entrepreneurship, for example: Selling Cigarettes.

Jul. 28 2014 08:34 AM

NYC has more picayune regulations than most places in the world. People justifiably see this as tyranny.
Selling Cigarettes; renting bicycles; unlicensed pedicabs; pink mustaches on cars; parking a car for >24 hours....

Jul. 28 2014 08:32 AM

I wish you'd said on air, before the piece was played, that you'd be using audio from the video made of his death - I have deliberately not watched that video - hearing his last words "I can't breathe!" was too much. Would've appreciated a "warning to sensitive listeners"...

Jul. 28 2014 08:27 AM

People get indignant over tyranny.

Jul. 28 2014 08:24 AM
john from office

Maybe, the lack of fathers at home leads to a population that cannot deal with any authority figures. Be it a teacher or a policeman. Simple interactions, that others deal with easily, break down into arrests and violence.

Jul. 28 2014 07:05 AM
Peter from Aberdeen, NJ

There is no doubt that police can and will escalate and exacerbate a situation.

Jul. 28 2014 06:25 AM

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