By Lee A. Daniels
Do you know what little respect Black and Hispanic citizens of New York City have for following the rules that make living in the city bearable – for not “loitering,” or riding their bicycles on the sidewalk, or spitting on the street, or walking through parks after dark, or—my particular favorite—not having a license for their dogs?
Well, you can learn what the New York City Police Department thinks in a vitally important article the New York Daily News, published August 4. Daily News reporters, plumbing the data from several sources, found that police are giving summonses to Black and Hispanic New Yorkers for violating these minor rules of the criminal code in numbers and percentages far beyond their proportion of the city’s population.
The newspaper reported that, although Blacks and Hispanics make up about half the city’s population, from 2001 to 2013, they comprised 81 percent of the 7.3 million people who’ve gotten summonses. The summons program has long been the centerpiece of the police department’s “broken windows” concept. That’s the view that enforcement of such quality-of-life violations as drinking liquor in the street, or urinating in public, or playing loud music not only damages citizens’ ability to enjoy their lives but often, if ignored, can often lead to criminal activity.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, a long-time advocate of the policy, continues to staunchly defend its practice. But the New York Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups who have successfully forced changes to the department’s old, racist “stop and frisk” program are preparing a legal challenge to it in part because those who don’t contest the summonses and just pay the fines are left with records of the violations – records which can harm their future pursuit of, among other things, work, educational opportunities, or immigration status.
One thing the NYPD’s broken-windows program makes glaringly apparent is that enforcement of the majority of these infractions is completely dependent on the discretion of the police officers involved. Who gets stopped, questioned and given a summons for violating these minor rules? Who gets stopped, questioned and given a talking-to but is let go with no summons? And who do the police notice is violating these minor rules, but choose not to stop them at all?
For example, the data show that, although just 17 percent of the dogs in the city are licensed, Blacks and Hispanics comprise 91 percent of those given summonses for not having licenses for their dogs. Police officials have thus far been silent on what is the racial and color difference in the way New Yorkers walk their dogs on city streets that leads such a disparity.
Of course, the real question is are Black and Hispanic New Yorkers so dismissive of following these rules, or is something else at work?
One part of the answer can be found in the fact that, according to the Daily News report, the summons program, which is heavily stacked against individuals trying to prove their innocence via a trial, is a huge moneymaker for the city’s court system. Last year, it raked in $8.7 million, the courts’ second-largest source of revenue.
In other words, New York City’s summons programs is following a widespread practice among police departments across the country: selectively enforcing minor rules of the criminal code in order to wring as much revenue as they can from citizens.
As my fellow NNPA columnist George E. Curry wrote last week, most of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo. “sustain themselves by targeting, fining and jailing poor Missouri residents, many of them Black, who are unable to pay traffic tickets.”
And the Washington Post’s three-part series of last week described how the federal government’s post-9-11 program to enlist local police departments in the domestic homeland security effort quickly morphed into the latter using it as an excuse to seize –is the more accurate word “rob?” – “hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes.”
If these facts are put alongside such other issues as the questionable militarization of local police forces and the lack of diversity of many police departments in cities and small towns with sizable Black and Hispanic populations, they lead to an inescapable conclusion: that America not only has a “crime problem,” it also has a “criminal justice problem” – and that the two are in fact related.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.