More Than a Theory

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 27: Members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) take part in a promotion ceremony attended by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly at Police Headquarters on January 27, 2012 in New York City. Kelly appeared in the film "The Third Jihad" Muslim groups are asking him to step down, saying that the film they depicts Islam and its followers in a bad light. The film was shown to hundreds and maybe thousands of NYPD officers for training purposes. Commissioner Kelly refused to answer questions relating to rape allegations involving his son, TV host Greg Kelly. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Members of the New York Police Department (NYPD). (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Last week, we got an important reminder of why it is so important to enforce the laws in seemingly low-level, quality-of-life offenses. Police officers assigned to the transit beat were in the Columbus Circle station at about 2:30 a.m., when an A train pulled in and they spotted a man with his feet on an adjacent seat. Rather than simply disregard this easy-to-ignore, “victimless” offense, the cops took action.

They removed the man from the train and ran a background check on him. Within seconds, the police learned there was an active warrant for his arrest. Detectives in Brooklyn’s 60th precinct had issued an “I-card” on the man—he was a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend, and had eluded police for 10 months. Later that day, Gregory White confessed to the murder of Victoria Hammond.

Happily, this was an instance of everything working as it was supposed to. But that is a not foregone conclusion, as politicians such as City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito continue to push to decriminalize quality-of-life offenses.

At any point in this fast-moving scenario, the police officers could have acted differently and made a perfectly understandable decision not to enforce the law.

FBI Director James Comey raised the question of whether police are reticent to enforce the law twice last week. Mr. Comey, who was appointed by President Obama, is publicly challenging his boss on what has been termed the “Ferguson Effect.” Mr. Comey believes the recent uptick in crime could be the result of police who are reluctant to enforce laws fully for fear of being videotaped.

The next in-the-moment decision the NYPD officers had to make was whether to issue the seat-hogger a summons, which comes with a $50 fine. What goes through the cops’ minds at that moment is whether the assistant district attorney will “DP”—decline to prosecute—the offense. Many junior ADAs, overburdened by heavy caseloads, are more likely to ignore minor offenses—especially if they think their bosses will get flack from politicians for strict enforcement.

Then the transit cops had to believe that their technology would work. Importantly, they have far more confidence in the computers, software and mobile phones that Deputy Police Commissioner for Technology Jessica Tisch has made a priority. It all did work, and White wound up behind bars: bail was set sufficiently high so that he wouldn’t ignore yet another court date.

At any point in this fast-moving scenario, the police officers could have acted differently and made a perfectly understandable decision not to enforce the law or proceed by the book. But they did their duty, and we are safer for it. We only hope Ms. Mark-Viverito and her colleagues recognize that broken windows is not some crackpot right-wing theory, but what actually keeps us safer.

More Than a Theory