It started in New York City under Mayor Giuliani's administration in the 1990s, and New York may now be witnessing the beginning of the end.
Based on the "broken window theory" -- a 1982 claim that urban disorder creates a triggering environment for crime -- "quality of life" policing allocates law enforcement resources to monitoring "normally non-criminal activities such as standing, congregating, sleeping, eating and/or drinking in public spaces, as well as minor offenses such as graffiti, public urination, panhandling, littering, and unlicensed street vending."
It was precisely an arrest for suspected unlicensed street vending that thrust the debate about nuisance policing into the spotlight here last month. A widely seen amateur video showed Eric Garner, 43, being surrounded by police, then wrestled to the ground, after being approached for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Garner died following the incident, and his death has been ruled a homicide.
New York City has witnessed a historic decline in crime rates -- especially for crimes of violence -- in the 20 years since Giuliani became mayor (and appointed William Bratton as his police commissioner; Bratton was re-appointed to the post last year after serving as Los Angeles police chief for seven years). Murder has declined so rapidly, that New York is on track to having the lowest homicide rate of any big city in the States.
All serious offenses have shown a more or less consistent decline, putting New York below the national average crime rate.
Some would point to these figures as highlighting the success of quality of life policing strategies introduced by Bratton, and continued by his successor as police commissioner, Ray Kelly. But it's increasingly claimed that the city's relative safety means focusing on minor offenses is inappropriate, heavy-handed, and out-of-date.
This comes at a time, of course, when "stop and frisk" policing has been ruled unconstitutional in New York, and influential voices are calling for legalization of marijuana. There certainly seems to be a wind of change blowing.
Quality of life policing may have come of age in New York, but it has been exported around the country, and around the world. Because of "unique political problems, powerful constituencies, vested interests, different subcultures of deviants, and public visibility of behaviors that may be included in QOL policing," the strategy has been implemented in different ways in different jurisdictions. But from Britain to Germany, from Israel to Japan and China, nuisance policing has received the official stamp of approval.
It's ironic that the strategy may be stifled as a result of its own success. "I think we need to look at whether we still need these arrests," said Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former police officer. "This is a good moment to re-evaluate what comes after 'broken windows,' now that the windows are no longer broken."
But what conclusion should be drawn by societies -- in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, for example -- where the windows are still broken? Does quality of life policing remain a viable approach to reducing crime rates where urban disorder still prevails? Or is the truly valuable lesson from New York's Bratton-Kelly years the use of analytics -- data-driven law enforcement management -- to identify and respond to developing crime patterns?