Police have come under increased criticism lately, from increased concerns over killings of minorities, sometimes in response to petty offenses, to abuse of police powers to raise money. This creates difficult problems to solve. Virtually nobody questions the need to have police, but there is no simple solution to stopping the excessive use of police power. In some cases the solution would be the repeal of laws along with reforms of practices. There has been an unexpected improvement in some areas in New York as a consequence of the dispute between Mayor Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police following the police killing of Eric Garner and the subsequent murder of two police officers. The New York Post has reported a 66 percent drop in arrests:
Citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587, during that time frame.
Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent — from 4,831 to 300.
Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241.
Drug arrests by cops assigned to the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau — which are part of the overall number — dropped by 84 percent, from 382 to 63.
The Atlantic discussed the benefits of this reduction in police activity:
Policing quality doesn’t necessarily increase with policing quantity, as New York’s experience with stop-and-frisk demonstrated. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg asserted that the controversial tactic of warrantless street searches “keeps New York City safe.” De Blasio ended the program soon after succeeding him, citing its discriminatory impact on black and Hispanic residents. Stop-and-frisk incidents plunged from 685,724 stops in 2011 to just 38,456 in the first three-quarters of 2014 as a result. If stop-and-frisk had caused the ongoing decline in New York’s crime rate, its near-absence would logically halt or even reverse that trend. But the city seems to be doing just fine without it: Crime rates are currently at two-decade lows, with homicide down 7 percent and robberies down 14 percent since 2013.
The slowdown also challenges the fundamental tenets of broken-windows policing, a controversial strategy championed by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. According to the theory, which first came to prominence in a 1982 article in The Atlantic, “quality-of-life” crimes like vandalism and vagrancy help normalize criminal behavior in neighborhoods and precede more violent offenses. Tackling these low-level offenses therefore helps prevent future ones. The theory’s critics dispute its effectiveness and contend that broken-windows policing simply criminalizes the young, the poor, and the homeless.
Public drinking and urination may be unseemly, but they’re hardly threats to life, liberty, or public order. (The Post also noted a decline in drug arrests, but their comparison of 2013 and 2014 rates is misleading. The mayor’s office announced in November that police would stop making arrests for low-level marijuana possession and issue tickets instead. Even before the slowdown began, marijuana-related arrests had declined by 61 percent.) If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven’t they done it before?
The human implications of this question are immense. Fewer arrests for minor crimes logically means fewer people behind bars for minor crimes. Poorer would-be defendants benefit the most; three-quarters of those sitting in New York jails are only there because they can’t afford bail. Fewer New Yorkers will also be sent to Rikers Island, where endemic brutality against inmates has led to resignations, arrests, and an imminent federal civil-rights intervention over the past six months. A brush with the American criminal-justice system can be toxic for someone’s socioeconomic and physical health.
Addicting Info looked at this from a more civil liberties persecutive:
Our prison population is now larger than those of the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulags, and the largest prison system in history.
The statistics speak for themselves, revealing that the New York Police Department has been needlessly arresting people who were not criminals at all. Rather than bolstering their case, the NYPD has instead given Mayor Bill de Blasio proof that the department is indeed out of control, and not accountable to the people they are there to protect. Instead of the anticipated surge in criminal activity, the results of the work stoppage have shown that the police have been arresting needlessly, the result of strict EPA regulations causing a decades-long drop of crime across the city as well as elsewhere nationwide.
The transition of the justice system from law enforcement to profit center was a slow one, but now it is near absolute. There have been whole towns which had police citations as their primary revenue source. Private prisons generate record revenue and have turned into a new form of slavery. This is made worse when you realize that most prisoners have never even been before a jury for trial.
The NYPD is the largest police force in the United States. As a result, it is a good study for understanding what is wrong with American justice. By their work stoppage, the NYPD hoped to show how indispensable they are. Instead, ironically, it demonstrated that the department itself has been the problem the whole time. If we want to see crime drop in the largest city in the big apple, it is time for real reforms.
Think Progress concentrated on how this change benefits the poor, who suffered disproportionately from excessive police action, along with affecting New Yorkers of all income levels:
Although it’s not the intended goal of the work stoppage, the decline in arrests could save New Yorkers money. The city residents who are normally hit with tickets for minor violations tend to be low income individuals who are forced to pay up a hefty portion of their paychecks.
The city began following the broken-windows style of policing in the early 1980s, a strategy championed by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton which focuses on eliminating low-level crime to prevent more violent offenses in the city’s neighborhoods. But a report earlier this year by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan found that the NYPD’s practice of arresting more people for minor offenses since 1980 has disproportionately affected young black and Latino men.
While de Blasio and Bratton have followed through on their promise to reform the city’s stop and frisk practices and the mayor announced in November that police would stop making arrests for low-level marijuana possessions, there are still racial biases in police practices throughout the city that result in a tougher financial burden on those already struggling to make ends meet.
And New Yorkers of all income levels are also saving money on one of the most consistent ways the city can slam people with tickets— parking violations are down by 92 percent, from 14,699 to just 1,241 this year.
NYPD officers have long spoken about quotas which require them to issue a certain number of summons per month to maintain statistics showing a reduction of crime in the city’s neighborhoods. Although Bratton promised an end to arrest quotas when he took office in January, the city’s police are still operating under a quota system which is illegal under state law, according to a recent report by the Police Reform Organizing Project. The group called on Bratton and de Blasio to end the quota system in its October report, which described how police are still using the quota system, as evidenced by the number of misdemeanor arrests and the poor quality of those arrests under Bratton.
Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone noted how under other circumstances this could be a change in policy which both progressives and libertarians might have backed, but unfortunately such principles are not the reason for this work stoppage:
I don’t know any police officer anywhere who would refuse to arrest a truly dangerous criminal as part of a PBA-led political gambit. So the essence of this protest seems now to be about trying to hit de Blasio where it hurts, i.e. in the budget, without actually endangering the public.
So this police protest, unwittingly, is leading to the exposure of the very policies that anger so many different constituencies about modern law-enforcement tactics.
First, it shines a light on the use of police officers to make up for tax shortfalls using ticket and citation revenue. Then there’s the related (and significantly more important) issue of forcing police to make thousands of arrests and issue hundreds of thousands of summonses when they don’t “have to.”
It’s incredibly ironic that the police have chosen to abandon quality-of-life actions like public urination tickets and open-container violations, because it’s precisely these types of interactions that are at the heart of the Broken Windows polices that so infuriate residents of so-called “hot spot” neighborhoods.
In an alternate universe where this pseudo-strike wasn’t the latest sortie in a standard-issue right-versus left political showdown, one could imagine this protest as a progressive or even a libertarian strike, in which police refused to work as backdoor tax-collectors and/or implement Minority Report-style pre-emptive policing policies, which is what a lot of these Broken Windows-type arrests amount to.
But that’s not what’s going on here. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing enlightened about this slowdown, although I’m sure there are thousands of cops who are more than happy to get a break from Broken Windows policing…
I’ve met more than a few police in the last few years who’ve complained vigorously about things like the “empty the pad” policies in some precincts, where officers were/are told by superiors to fill predetermined summons quotas every month.
It would be amazing if this NYPD protest somehow brought parties on all sides to a place where we could all agree that policing should just go back to a policy of officers arresting people “when they have to.”
Because it’s wrong to put law enforcement in the position of having to make up for budget shortfalls with parking tickets, and it’s even more wrong to ask its officers to soak already cash-strapped residents of hot spot neighborhoods with mountains of summonses as part of a some stats-based crime-reduction strategy.
Both policies make people pissed off at police for the most basic and understandable of reasons: if you’re running into one, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to end up opening your wallet.
Your average summons for a QOL offense costs more than an ordinary working person makes in a day driving a bus, waiting tables, or sweeping floors. So every time you nail somebody, you’re literally ruining their whole day.
If I were a police officer, I’d hate to be taking money from people all day long, too. Christ, that’s worse than being a dentist. So under normal circumstances, this slowdown wouldn’t just make sense, it would be heroic.
Unfortunately, this protest is not about police refusing to shake people down for money on principle.
For one thing, it’s simply another public union using its essential services leverage to hold the executive (and by extension, the taxpayer) hostage in a negotiation. In this case the public union doesn’t want higher pay or better benefits (in which case it wouldn’t have the support from the political right it has now – just the opposite), it merely wants “support” from the Mayor.
On another level, however, this is just the latest salvo in an ongoing and increasingly vicious culture-war mess that is showing no signs of abating.
Even if we are inadvertently seeing some good outcomes for the wrong reasons, perhaps city governments will learn something here.
Update: Steve M. has a different view from Matt Taibbi.