PROP volunteers, including the author (photo: @PROPNYC)
In a recent ten-day period I had experiences that taught me new things about bad NYPD practices, reinforced my cynicism about the lame way that mainstream politicians, including officials who self-identify as progressives, posture on policing issues, and strengthened my determination to press aggressively for fundamental and meaningful changes in NYPD policies. My organization, PROP - the Police Reform Organizing Project - continues to monitor NYPD practices and advocate for real change.
*On a monitoring visit to the Brooklyn criminal court -- PROP representatives and volunteers regularly observe proceedings in the arraignment parts of the city's criminal courts as a way of tracking NYPD 'broken windows' arrest practices -- I stood on a line of about 45 people waiting to pass through the metal detector. I was the only white person -- everyone else was African-American or Latino, the vast majority of whom dressed in clothes suggesting that they were members not of the well-to-do professional class, but of the low-income or working classes.
*On that morning, the Brooklyn misdemeanor arraignment part heard 34 cases, all men of color whom the police had arrested and locked up. Each of these men walked out of the courtroom, meaning essentially that no court official, including in most cases the prosecutors, considered the defendants dangerous or predatory. The charges included suspended license, theft of services (usually fare-beating), marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, and open alcohol container.
*At a meeting later that day, a fellow police reformer reported that he had recently attended a police/community meeting where neighborhood residents had a discussion with officials from the local precinct. The community members expressed concern about a recent armed robbery and asked what the police were doing about it. The officials responded by saying that they were "summonsing like crazy," meaning that police officers were issuing many criminal summonses to people in the neighborhood for representative 'broken windows' infractions/activities like being in the park after dark, littering, carrying an open alcohol container, or riding a bike on the sidewalk. Community members raised the pointed question: But what are you doing to actually investigate the crime and catch the perpetrators?
*At a meeting with a journalist and me, a police officer who is considering coming forward to publicize the ill effects of the NYPD's quota system on officers and New Yorkers alike, reported on the following matters: under the pressure to "make their numbers" each month, some officers working in a precinct with a cemetery within its borders will issue what are known as "cemetery summonses," meaning that they will enter the graveyard and write up tickets with the names of dead people that that they find on the tombstones. Some precincts - those that serve white well-to-do areas, for example - have no quotas. One of the first questions that an officer new to an inner-city precinct asks is: "What is the number?" And, again under the pressure of the quota system, some officers will for most of the month ignore a neighborhood "hot spot," a place where crime such as drug dealing or prostitution takes place in the open, and if they have not met their quotas, will round up the people at those sites at month's end.
*A PROP volunteer, a teacher who instructs students at night classes in the City College system, reported the following stories that he heard during a class discussion about discriminatory NYPD practices: two students of color, both women - one African-American and the other Latina - recounted unsettling encounters with officers on select buses in the Bronx. In one case the woman couldn't at first find the receipt when the officer approached her, so the officer began writing up the summons; she did eventually find it, but when she displayed it, the officer said that it was too late, that he had already filled out the ticket; she has refused to pay the fine and plans to fight the ticket. In the other case, the woman made a mistake in pressing the buttons of the ticket machine at the bus stop and ended up with 2 tickets for handicapped people which totaled the same amount, $2.50, as a regular ticket; the officer still issued a summons and, in this case, rather than take the time that she couldn't afford to oppose the summons, the woman paid the fine.
*PROP released an analysis of the NYPD's misdemeanor arrest practices for 2015, revealing that 87 percent of those arrests involved people of color compared to 85.8 percent in 2013 and 86.5 percent in 2014. To demonstrate the blatant racism associated with these practices, we focused on some specific kinds of arrests including theft of services, or fare-beating, which at 29,198 was the NYPD's most numerous arrest category for last year. Fully 92 percent involved people of color - in fact, in our year-and-a-half of court-monitoring work, we have observed only a handful of white defendants charged with theft of services. Spokespeople for City Hall and the Police Department made statements in response focused on safety on the subways, but that did not address the extraordinary racial imbalance reflected in the numbers that PROP had spotlighted.
Despite these numbers and accounts that demonstrate the undeniable racial bias and deep injustices involved in the NYPD's current application of quota-driven 'broken windows' policing, our city's leading politicians, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, announce and occasionally enact the softest kind of modifications that do nothing to fundamentally change or end the NYPD's abusive and discriminatory practices.
Out of political considerations - it would be too risky to promote the fundamental police reforms needed - they have effectively abandoned one of their main constituencies: low-income New Yorkers of color, leaving them to the harsh treatment and societal marginalization that result from the practices and policies of the NYPD and the city's criminal justice system.
It is up to us police reformers and other concerned New Yorkers to keep hammering away at these issues. Despite our frustration and disappointment of the moment, we know that silence will kill all hope of achieving our shared goal of a fair, safe, and inclusive city for all New Yorkers.
Bob Gangi is Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project. On Twitter @PROPNYC.