Nearly three years into the mayoralty of Bill de Blasio, the Broken Windows strategy of aggressively policing low-level violations, applied as a replacement for the unconstitutional use of the NYPD tactic known as stop, question, and frisk, continues to be disproportionately applied against African-American and Hispanic people citywide.
Volunteers with the Police Reform Organizing Project sat in on criminal court arraignments in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, from March to June. They recount their findings in a report, titled "We Harm People Everyday" (sic) after the confession of an anonymous prosecutor. The court monitors watched the hearings that started off 423 people's misdemeanor and violation cases, each stemming from an arrest that led to a trip through Central Booking, or a Desk Appearance Ticket at a local precinct. Of those defendants, 378, or 89 percent, were black or Hispanic.
The cases included arrests for what people typically think of as crimes, such as assault and shoplifting. Other, less obviously serious charges were also well represented, though, including marijuana possession, turnstile jumping, being in a park after hours, possession of a pocket knife (that an officer can flick open, no matter how many tries it takes), and unlicensed street vending. Some of these offenses didn't necessarily have to come to criminal court. New York decriminalized possession of 25 grams of marijuana or less 39 years ago, whereas a charge still exists for possessing less than two ounces, leaving the question of whether one is arrested to the accuracy of officers' ability to eyeball a bag of weed.
City Councilmembers also recently proposed decriminalizing several of the most commonly ticketed offenses that require misdemeanor court appearances, including disobeying park rules, so that the summonses would be handled in civil court. The NYPD balked at this, and the legislators revised their bills. The resulting, watered-down versions enacted in June give officers the discretion to issue criminal summonses and make arrests if, as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton put it, "the behavior is egregious or inappropriate."
The minor charges also do not tell the whole story. The report relates the predicament of a middle-aged Latino man accused of petit larceny in Midtown. His offense: picking a flower from a public garden.
Another man, accused of driving with a suspended license in the Bronx, said he had been minding a parked moving truck when officers asked him to move it so one of them could pull out of a parking spot. He apparently did not move it far enough for their liking.
Several defendants said they felt pressured into taking a guilty plea by public defenders, despite their innocence, to avoid the possibility of winding up with a criminal record. One such man said cops uptown accused him of smoking weed while he was out buying food for his kids, and though they found nothing on him, they arrested him and charged him with obstructing police work and tampering with evidence. The man begrudgingly took a judge's adjournment contemplating dismissal, a finding that allows a defendant to walk and clears his record so long as he is not arrested in the next six or 12 months.
Another defendant who wanted to expose police lies in court but copped a plea to avoid the risk was arrested for driving with a suspended license in Manhattan, though her license was active, according to the report.
The pace of the arraignments was brisk, averaging one per minute and 35 seconds in the 225 cases PROP timed. They would have to be, given that New York City courts processed 315,000 arraignments last year, or close to 1,000 per day. The quickest arraignment PROP's court monitors observed lasted all of 13 seconds.
PROP director Robert Gangi said he could not make any of the defendants mentioned in the report available for comment. PROP court monitors typically do not record the name and contact information of defendants.