'What's the Big Deal With Selling Cigarettes?'

In the aftermath of the Eric Garner death in New York City, there has been ongoing analysis criticizing the NYPD’s response.  As you might recall, Garner was being arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a city sidewalk at the time of his death. Many have questioned the need for the NYPD to even enforce such a minor law violation. Others have called a law of this nature just another example of an overexpansion of government into the lives of citizens. 

Beliefs like these ignore that every city has ordinances that exist for the purpose of improving the quality of life for its citizens, business owners, and visitors. Cities have panhandling laws that prevent people from being harassed by transient people who are begging for money. NYC having an ordinance about selling loose cigarettes is just another example of a local law that was passed to protect legitimate businesses and to prevent local “street dealers” from harassing pedestrians.

Furthermore, when this incident is analyzed through historical data and proven crime-fighting strategies, we see that the Garner incident is like so many other police-citizen encounters which produce an end result of less crime.       

“Broken Windows” Theory

To the average person, arresting someone who is selling loose cigarettes seems to be excessive. But statistics show that when minor laws are enforced, this leads to a reduction in more serious crimes as well. This is the policing strategy known as the “broken windows” theory. This theory asserts that when minor problems are ignored then that encourages larger problems to develop. And the reverse is also true: when minor problems are dealt with, it discourages more serious problems. 

Some people question whether the Broken Windows theory actually reduces crime. But aggressive policing of minor crimes has a major impact on overall crime. Simple police presence in a neighborhood is rarely enough to deter criminal behavior.  However, when officers are writing citations, making arrests, and searching people and vehicles, criminals notice in a hurry and soon go elsewhere.

A few years ago there was a convenience store located in my patrol area that was the scene of all kinds of problems, including large fights, shootings, thefts, vandalism, drug deals, etc. Previous officers just tried to be present at the store during the problem times but they were not very proactive. This approach had little impact. 

My approach was to contact as many people in the parking lot or nearby on the street. Over several months I was consistently there during the problem time periods and was making arrests, writing citations and conducting legal searches of people and vehicles.  After several months, the large crowds and problems disappeared (I do not have any actual statistical data that reflects my work, only my own observations that my efforts had an impact.)

Broken Windows in the Big Apple

NYC has seen an enormous drop in its crime rate after the NYPD began applying the broken windows theory.  In 1990, prior to adopting “broken windows”, NYC had 2,245 murders.  Broken windows was adopted in 1994 and NYC ended 2014 with 328 murders and decreases in all other types of crime as well. 

In 1994, NYC had a problem with “squeegee men”, people who would intimidate motorists into paying for a windshield cleaning while they were stuck in traffic. The NYPD ultimately arrested about 180 “squeegee men” for minor crimes such as jaywalking, which helped contribute to a reduction in felony crimes by approximately 5000 per week.

In 1996, John Royster, Jr. was arrested in NYC for jumping a turnstile. While being booked into jail he was fingerprinted.  His fingerprints were then matched up against fingerprints obtained from a murder scene and Royster was ultimately convicted of three murders.

Broken Windows Elsewhere

“Broken Windows” was so effective that it has been applied in several other cities and all have achieved similar results. A 2009 Harvard University study found that serious crime in LA was substantially reduced in all areas of the city during the same period of time when the number of motor vehicle stops and pedestrian stops doubled.       

Aggressive policing works. And here’s why: The great majority of crimes are committed by a small number of people. The media incorrectly portrays criminals in distinct sub-groups, such as rapists, robbers, murderers, thieves, etc. which implies that these are all different groups of people. 

But in reality, these are pretty much all the same people who commit a wide variety of crimes. So when someone is arrested, regardless of the type of crime he/she is arrested for, it has an impact on other types of crimes as well.  In other words, when I arrest someone for a drug offense, and take them off the street, I am also preventing him/her from stealing, assaulting, etc.       

In fact, investigation of minor crimes often results in the discovery of more serious crimes:

  •  In 2009, a police officer in Lincoln, NE was investigating suspicious activity when he was given a fake name by a suspect.  After obtaining a fingerprint from the man, the man was identified as Lebron Withers, who was wanted for a 2006 murder in Memphis, TN. 
  • In 1995, Timothy McVeigh was stopped shortly after fleeing Oklahoma City following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  At the time of the stop, the state trooper had no idea that McVeigh had just committed the OKC bombing.  McVeigh was ultimately arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Two days later, while McVeigh was still in jail on the weapons charge, the FBI identified McVeigh as being involved in the bombing.
  • In 2007 in South Carolina, two college students were stopped for speeding and a pipe bomb was found in their vehicle. Ultimately, one of the occupants, Ahmed Mohamed, was sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges. None of this would have happened had it not been for the deputy enforcing minor traffic laws.  

Reducing Crime Is Simply a Result of Hard Work

Fighting crime is largely about hard work and basic math. The more that officers are proactive, the more people they will have contact with, the more crime they will detect, and the more people they will arrest. And this type of policing, when maintained consistently, leads to sustained decreases in crime.

Law enforcement is a dangerous and controversial business. There will be times when things go bad. But during those times, it is shortsighted to suggest that the officers should not have been there enforcing the law or to suggest that the law should not have been in place to begin with.

Matt Ernst is a law enforcement officer and also an independent national security and criminal justice analyst.  He can be reached at ernst1997@hotmail.com