Scientific knowledge sometimes isn’t worth the ethical cost. For example, when it was first suspected that smoking causes lung cancer, a strong way to test the theory would have been to take a bunch of babies, expose half to lots of cigarette smoke for decades, and see what happened. That would have resulted in valuable evidence but obviously would have come at too high an ethical cost.
The New York Police Department is apparently not moved by these sorts of considerations. Enraged by the murder of two police officers, which has been ludicrously blamed on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city's finest have been conducting a work slowdown in protest. (The official line is that there is no coordinated slowdown, but the numbers don't lie.)
It’s unclear what the motivation is behind the slowdown. There are three possibilities. First, the NYPD hopes that reduced policing will spark a crime spree, leading the public to turn on de Blasio. Second, the force is cutting back on ticketing to hit the city government in the wallet. Or third, it is a visceral lashing out at a city that isn’t providing the unquestioning, worshipful deference the cops apparently think they deserve at all times.
None of these are mutually exclusive, of course. I’d put some weight on all three, with the bulk of it on the last one. In any case, it’s a seriously unethical experiment on the citizens of New York. How much policing does the city really need? We’re about to get an answer, whether we like it or not.
The New York Times has compiled some interesting data on the reduction in policing activity. Just about every category of law enforcement is down from this time last year. Subway policing has basically stopped altogether. Arrests and citations for minor offenses (parking tickets and the like) have fallen by 90 percent or more. Arrests for violent crime are down by a small amount and appear to be returning to normal. But only detective bureau arrests have returned to their previous level, after a sharp reduction last week.
It’s probably fair to say that after a week of genuinely risking public safety, the NYPD is beginning to think better of its rash behavior and is scaling back the slowdown on violent crime.
Still, crime of any kind barely budged, either last week or this week. This suggests that the NYPD is not the only thing standing between New York and a blighted dystopian hellscape.
It casts more serious doubt on the "Broken Windows" theory, beloved of police departments and city governments in New York and across the nation. This idea holds that the way to reduce serious crime is to crack down on minor offenses. For two weeks running, minor offenses have gone essentially unpunished. The result? Bupkis.
This is not dispositive proof, of course. There are dozens of potential confounding factors, and the situation is changing daily. In particular, two weeks may just be too short a time for crime to take root. But when it comes to policing, experiments of any kind are rare. Undoubtedly, experts will be sifting the resulting data in the ensuing months, and whatever conclusions they draw should get wide attention.
Finally, there’s the issue of government funding. New York City took in $890 million from fines and tickets in fiscal year 2014, out of an overall budget of $70 billion. That’s a fairly small fraction of the total, especially compared with the brutally oppressive little municipalities surrounding St. Louis that run mostly on fines. However, it’s still true that unnecessary fines are perhaps the worst of all possible sources of government revenue, since they tend to disproportionately come from heavily policed poor and minority communities. If these tickets aren’t actually necessary for public safety, or are just a way to extract money from those least able to defend themselves, then New York ought to be finding that money elsewhere.
No ethicist could have signed off on this experiment. But the die is cast. We might as well glean what lessons we can.