NEW YORK -- A mass act of protest by New York City police is being welcomed by some critics of law enforcement.
In the two weeks since officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were ambushed and killed by a gunman on Dec. 20, 2014, their colleagues in the New York Police Department have engaged in a dramatic work slowdown.
For the week ending Jan. 4, officers issued 92 percent fewer criminal summonses -- handed out for minor offenses like drinking in public -- than during the same period last year. Overall, arrests dropped 56 percent, and the number of traffic tickets, a major source of revenue for the city, plunged.
The slowdown appears to be aimed at Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who police unions contend hasn't done enough to support the police in the face of protesters angry over a grand jury decision not to indict the officer involved in the chokehold death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner.
Ironically, the slowdown has also meant a de facto moratorium on "broken windows" policing in New York, which is what many of those protesters were seeking.
"We have been putting pressure on Bill de Blasio to abandon broken windows and abolish the arrest quota system, and NYPD officers, in effect, have taken it upon themselves to do that," Bob Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project told The Huffington Post.
The broken windows theory, long championed by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and now supported by de Blasio, holds that more-serious crime can be deterred by aggressively targeting low-level disorder, such as bike riding on the sidewalk or having an open container of alcohol in public. Broken windows policing has been credited by some with helping drive down the crime rate in New York City over the past two decades.
But critics have pointed out that cities without broken windows enforcement have also experienced dramatic drops in crime over the last 20 years.
They also charge that broken windows policing disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos. Earlier this year, a New York Daily News report found that between 2001 and 2013, NYPD officers issued more than 7 million summonses for minor offenses, such as drinking in the street. Of those who received summonses, 81 percent were black or Latino, the report said.
Broken windows came under renewed criticism this summer after the death of Garner, a 43-year-old black man who died as the result of a police chokehold during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes -- a classic broken windows offense.
The recent police slowdown is, in a sense, what these critics want -- an end to the aggressive policing of low-level crimes -- although it's not how they wanted that change to come about.
"This apparent work slowdown, whether a short-term political tactic by the police unions or a subset of police officers, should be distinguished from the long-term systemic reform of the NYPD that New York City needs," Monifa Bandele, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform, said in a statement.
"Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Bratton and the NYPD should permanently end all discriminatory arrests and summonses for low-level offenses that disproportionately target communities of color," Bandele said.
Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and an outspoken critic of broken windows, agrees. "What we're seeing is a labor action," he said. "This is not what people have been calling for."
Vitale also pushed back against the idea that the slowdown could help prove the ineffectiveness of broken windows policing. Last week Business Insider published a story titled "The NYPD Might Inadvertently Prove 'Broken Windows' Theory Is A Sham," which argued that if crime did not rise despite the drop in arrests during the slowdown, then the broken windows strategy falls apart.
"The timespan is way too short to draw any conclusions like that," said Vitale, noting that the slowdown has lasted only two weeks so far. "It certainly shows that there isn't an immediate effect," he added. "Ask me again if this keeps on to the summer."
New York City Council Member Rory Lancman (D), who’s talked about reforming broken windows in the council, said the slowdown is nothing to be happy about.
"I think the unions and officers are playing a dangerous game with the lives of New Yorkers, and it needs to stop," he said. "Critics of broken windows aren't asking the city to stop enforcing public order entirely, but to do so in a way that is racially fair and relies more on discretion and persuasion than on summonses and arrests."
The desired reform can't be accomplished by "throwing up your hands and turning the city over to disorder and anarchy," he added.
Lancman also lashed out at the police unions for not doing anything to stop the slowdown. "The union leadership is fomenting a culture of lawlessness and disrespect for the law among rank-and-file police," he said. "It's unacceptable and intolerable that police would unilaterally decide not to do their job."
Commissioner Bratton said this week that he has ordered a "comprehensive review" of the recent drop in summonses and arrests. If it's shown to be an organized slowdown, he said, "we will deal with it very forcefully."
For their part, the unions have continued to deny coordinating the slowdown but also haven't condemned it. "People are talking to each other," Edward D. Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said of the slowdown, according to The New York Times. "It became contagious."