By Lee A. Daniels
Three reports released this month on the arrest activities of the New York City Police Department should ratchet up the already significant questioning of the department’s use of the “broken windows” approach to policing. That theory asserts that cops’ zero tolerance of such misdemeanor crimes as possession of small amounts of marijuana and such quality-of-life violations as loitering not only improves neighborhoods’ quality of life in small ways, it also sends a signal that more serious crimes won’t be tolerated, either.
The claim that arresting individuals for such things as possessing what are often trace amounts of marijuana or riding one’s bicycle on the sidewalk deters other individuals from committing burglary, robbery, rape and murder has long been the subject of vigorous debate.
But one thing is clear about the NYPD’s use of broken windows: Black and Hispanic New Yorkers in wildly disproportionate numbers are the targets of this “aggressive” policing – not because they violate these rules more than Whites but because the police seek them out in order to build their arrest statistics. That use of the ‘broken windows’ policy is evident from the statistics found in three separate reports released this month by three different New York City-based entities.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York produced a massive study of misdemeanor arrests in New York City (and four other cities in New York state) from 1980 to 2013. The Drug Policy Alliance, which urges reforms in drug-related policies and usage, issued a report on the racial disparity of marijuana arrests in the city during the corresponding six months of 2013 and 2014. And the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), an advocacy organization which seeks to change what it considers unjust police practices, published the results of its September monitoring of nearly 200 arraignments in three of the city’s criminal courts.
One set of statistics in the John Jay report shows that in terms of the crime rate as well as in absolute numbers, both violent and nonviolent crime in New York City has declined in “unprecedented” fashion since reaching a peak in the late 1980s. For example, the number of robberies fell from 100,550 in 1980 to 19, 128 in 2013; murders declined from 1,821 in 1980 to 335 last year; and motor vehicle thefts fell from 96, 471 to 7,400.
But the decline in serious crime – and thus, the decline in arrests for serious crime – was countered by an even sharper rise in police arrests for misdemeanors. They rose from an arrest rate of 1,174 per 100,000 citizens in 1980 to 3,411 per 100,000 in 2013—an increase of 190.5 percent.
And guess what, in New York City arrests and summonses for these transgressions, in which street cops can exercise great discretion in how seriously to treat the matter, skyrocketed for Black and Hispanic citizens. From 1990 to 2013, for example, the misdemeanor arrests of Whites increased from 21,815 to 28,996; for Hispanics, from 30,885 to 78,733, and for Blacks, from 56,152 to 104, 659.
The Drug Alliance report shows how the impact of racial targeting plays out in marijuana arrests, which are overwhelmingly concentrated among teenagers and young adults. It found that, despite the fact that young Whites use marijuana at higher rates than blacks or Hispanics, the latter two groups made up 86 percent of the arrests from January to August of this year. One reason: the NYPD concentrates their arrest activities in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, not predominantly White ones.
An equally important finding is that 74 percent of those arrested this year have never been convicted of any misdemeanor. That data indicates that “The people the NYPD arrests for marijuana possession are not criminals … [but] ordinary high school and college students and young workers.”
A significant result of police arrests for these low-level violations, according to the Police Reform Organizing Project is that “Everyday, the NYPD’s ‘broken windows’ arrest practices inflict hardship and harm on the most vulnerable New Yorkers, especially low income people of color, the homeless and the mentally ill.” They also produce a tremendous waste of resources for the criminal justice system itself.
The organization’s study of arraignments in a total of 191 court cases in three different sections of the city found that 91 percent of the defendants were people of color and that in 85 percent of the cases the judge exonerated the defendant or levied only a minor penalty. Nonetheless, all these cases, no matter how flimsy most are shown to be in court, get logged on to the NYPD tally sheets as “work done.”
This devious bureaucratic maneuvering, however, can’t obscure the fact that the NYPD’s ‘broken windows’ approach is itself broken and needs a substantial overhaul.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.