THE BLOG
12/10/2014 05:11 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

The Pendulum of History Swings Again

Some believe that history is cyclical while others believe that the march of progress in humankind is linear. One of these contradictory theories is plausible, but to these macro explanations of history I add another: the pendulum of life often swings until it reaches a "tipping point" and then it shifts course and swings back in the other direction.

This theory, I believe, can be applied on a micro level to New York City's crime-fighting tactics and now, it seems, we have reached a new "tipping point" that may require us to reverse course.

A little more than two decades ago, the crime rate was soaring and New York felt ungovernable. Our police department was largely reactive and many families and senior citizens fled the city because they feared for their safety. The New York Post famously bellowed in a headline: "Dave, Do Something!" urging then-embattled Mayor David Dinkins to stop the rising tide of crime and chaos.

Dinkins, to his credit, did do something, and along with then City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, started the "Safe Streets, Safe City" program that added thousands of police officers to the force.

But voter anger at the rising crime stats swept Dinkins out of the mayoralty in 1993 and brought in two new sheriffs: Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his first NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. They decided to adopt a few innovative policing strategies and theories. The first, CompStat, used daily data to send more police officers to areas that had the greatest concentration of crime. The second, the "Broken Windows" theory of policing, mandated pursuing low-level misdemeanors like subway fare evasion or busting "squeegee men" who menaced city drivers.

If you cracked down on small offenses, it would send a signal to petty criminals that there is zero tolerance and this, in turn, would deter bigger crimes. Also, by arresting low-level offenders, you would be ridding the streets of criminals who might be wanted for other crimes. This aggressive style of policing was accompanied by an increasing use of "stop and frisk," which reached its peak in the last few years of the Bloomberg administration.

But now the pendulum has begun to swing back. "Stop and frisk" was a huge issue in the recent mayoral campaign and its use plummeted during Ray Kelly's last year as commissioner. Its use continues to decrease in the first year of the de Blasio-Bratton era. And now, in the aftermath of the grand jury's controversial no indictment in the Eric Garner case last week, it appears that the public's appetite for "Broken Windows" policing has reached a tipping point. Society, it seems, is fed up with aggressive policing which can lead to the deaths of unarmed men like Eric Garner in Staten Island (and Michael Brown in Missouri and the 12 year old child waving a pellet gun in Ohio).

People are questioning the wisdom of arresting a man like Garner, whose only crime was selling loose cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island, a petty crime if there ever was one. His misdeed, like the many arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, has now become an anachronism, many believe, the vestige of an era when crime was rampant and police needed to constantly fight petty crime so major crimes could not flourish in a seemingly lawless society.

And so it seems that we will now enter an era where our police will be more guarded and will likely wear cameras that will record their interactions with people they stop. This technology will make things more transparent, although a full video of the Garner arrest and police takedown was not enough to convince a grand jury to indict officer Pantaleo so that his actions could be judged in court.

If "Broken Windows" is abandoned (and if it is, it's unlikely to happen with a press release or a major pronouncement) it will end an era of policing in New York in which our NYPD played offense rather than defense. If we are now entering a period of kinder and gentler policing, we will see if the dramatic decrease in major crime in New York has gained enough traction that we no longer need a constantly vigilant police force.

There is a third way - keep "Broken Windows" policing but reimagine it so that petty crimes only lead to fines and summonses, not arrests and in extreme cases (like Eric Garner), forcible arrests that can lead to seemingly excessive use of force. Police Commissioner Bratton has talked about retraining police to be more judicious and cautious in the use of force; this new version of aggressive policing could keep crime rates low but also cut down on high-profile incidents like Garner and the recent shooting of an unarmed man in a Brooklyn housing project stairway. In that case, the officer pulled out his gun before he knew there was a clear and present danger and when it misfired it led to the tragic murder of an innocent young man.

It will take some time for New York to be able to judge the outcome of any new crime-fighting strategy. We will only know after 12-18 months whether crime rates will start to rise and whether it was "Broken Windows" policing that kept the crime rate so low for so long.

In the meantime, let us pray that our Mayor and police commissioner and the whole NYPD continue to maintain order and peace. I lived through the 1970s and 1980s in New York and anyone else who remembers what life was like in those dangerous decades will agree that we cannot go backwards in time, no matter what the pendulum of history decrees.

Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, was the Liberal Party-backed candidate for Mayor in 2012. He can be reached at tallon@cityandstateny.com