NEW YORK (AP) — Eric Garner, who died in police custody last week after he was put in an apparent chokehold, was suspected of committing the relatively minor crime of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street.
Richard Watkins holds a sign that reads "I don't want to be next" during a vigil demanding justice for Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while being arrested by New York City police, Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in New York. Demonstrators gathered at a park Tuesday, near where police attempted to arrest Garner, 43, on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. They marched several blocks to a police precinct and lit candles in Garner's memory. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The encounter was an unintended consequence of the New York Police Department's embrace of the policing tactic called "Broken Windows" — the idea that going after smaller crimes such as public drinking or graffiti helps stop greater disorder such as assault and murder.
But Garner's death has put Broken Windows under renewed scrutiny, with some lawmakers and experts saying the decades-old theory no longer applies to a city with far less crime, unnecessarily puts nonviolent people at risk and fuels tensions in the city's minority communities.
"I don't think it's a necessary police tactic," City Councilman Andy King said Tuesday during a news conference about Garner's death. City Councilwoman Inez Barron added that such enforcement "leads to confrontations like this."
The tactic caused a stir even before Garner's death. An 84-year-old pedestrian on Manhattan's Upper West Side who tussled with police officers trying to stop him for jaywalking earlier this year ended up with a bloody head injury. He's since filed a $5 million claim against the city alleging he was assaulted.
But the Garner case has turned up the heat. His arrest was captured on a widely distributed amateur video that appears to show an officer putting the asthmatic, 350-pound father of six in a banned chokehold after he refused to be handcuffed. He can be heard yelling, "I can't breathe!" as several officers take him down.
Autopsy results are pending on a death that has sparked protests, a criminal probe and a warning by the Rev. Al Sharpton that Garner's family would explore asking for a federal civil rights investigation. The family held a candlelight vigil Tuesday night on the eve a funeral set for Wednesday night.
The criticism comes at a time when the new administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to ease tensions between police and minorities by curtailing the department's widespread use of street stops of young men — so-called stop and frisk — as a strategy to curb crime. De Blasio's pick for police commissioner, William Bratton, uses Broken Windows as an alternative tool to help keep crime rates at historic lows.
Bratton vowed on Tuesday to stick with the program, saying the NYPD plans to next target illegal vendors who rent bikes in Central Park. He credited a similar crackdown on fare beaters during his first tenure as police commissioner in the 1990s with being the "tipping point" for a drastic reduction in overall crime in the subways.
"There's no change in that focus at all," Bratton said of Broken Windows. "That's a key part of what we're doing."
But critics say Broken Windows is broken.
"This is a defining moment for that administration. ... There is no human being who can look at that video and say nothing wrong occurred," City Councilman Jumaane Williams said.
The idea that the approach reduces serious crime is a hypothesis without any data to back it up, said Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale.
Vitale said Broken Windows and systematic stop and frisk tactics are examples of "over-policing" that would have been considered a waste of resources in past eras.
"Twenty years ago, if an officer had brought in Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes," Vitale said, "his sergeant would have laughed him out of the precinct house."