When the Broken Window Is a Cop

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

When reports emerged that hundreds of police officers were under investigation for “fixing tickets”—literally taking rec­ords of parking tickets and moving violations and throwing them in the trash at the behest of friends, family, and influential civilians—police-union representatives reacted with disbelief that their Internal Affairs Bureau brethren would bother with a criminal investigation of such low-level abuses.

In one sense, the officers crying overkill have a point. In the incidents that first caught the department’s attention, cops weren’t helping anyone get away with murder; they were helping someone’s dad avoid paying a fine for making an illegal left turn. But they shouldn’t be surprised by the hard line the IAB is taking on ticket-fixing—it is, after all, merely an inwardly directed extension of the NYPD’s own signature policing technique.

In New York City, mild lawlessness—walking between train cars, carrying a small amount of marijuana in your pocket—has long been under assault. (News broke last week that prosecutors throw out more than ten misdemeanor marijuana charges a day because officers openly admit in arrest reports that accused individuals weren’t carrying drugs in public view, a prerequisite for a state pot conviction.) This kind of enforcement was ramped up under commissioner Bill Bratton’s regime in the nineties, initially because of the Broken Windows theory, which held that making the city more civilized would create an atmosphere of upstandingness that would deter more-serious offenses. Crime did subsequently drop, though it’s hotly debated whether the city’s cleaner vibe was responsible. Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring and others argue that the real effect of cracking down on the small stuff was helping police realize the value of what he calls “pretextual” enforcement—“the use of minor offenses to remove dangerous people from dangerous situations.” Perpetrators of misdemeanors and civil violations often turn out to have outstanding warrants for more-­dangerous crimes; rounding up people for putting their feet on subway seats is a constitutionally acceptable way of sweeping the city for hoodlums.

Which is good for you, the citizen—unless, of course, you get ticketed for an inane violation and aren’t a rapist on the lam. That’s a problem that can range from inconvenient (if you’re a white-collar type missing a morning of work to pay a fine) to infuriating (if you’re a law-abiding minority resident of a bad neighborhood who keeps getting frisked because you’re “loitering”). It seems karmically fair, then, that the police should have to face their own version of pretextual enforcement. Fixing tickets may not be the worst thing on earth, but it shows the kind of basic arrogance and unwillingness to stand up to peer pressure that characterize cops who abuse power in more significant ways. Indeed, longtime police-beat writer Murray Weiss reported last week that IAB officers investigating ticket-fixing have since turned up more disturbing cases of back-scratching, like DUIs and domestic-abuse accusations swept under the rug. Uncorrupted members of the force may just have to accept bothersome scrutiny as a consequence of the larger effort to keep city streets safe. After all, if they’ve done nothing wrong, they’ve got nothing to worry about.

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When the Broken Window Is a Cop