The Police Reform Organizing Project's new "That's How They Get You" report (PDF) features a roundup of stories compiled from long hours spent monitoring arraignment and summons courts. Among the 117 vignettes, which PROP director Robert Gangi said were usually based on court testimony—and occasionally on conversations with defendants and lawyers, or reviewing lawsuits or news reports—this anecdote appears:
On a recent visit to the arraignment part in Brooklyn’s criminal court, PROP volunteers observed that police officers had arrested two Latino men on the charge of "man spreading" on the subway, presumably because they were taking up more than one seat and therefore inconveniencing other riders. Before issuing an [adjournment contemplating dismissal] for both men, the judge expressed her skepticism about the charge because of the time of the arrests: "12:11AM, I can't believe there were many people on the subway".
The two men had outstanding warrants for other Broken Windows charges, namely, being in a park after closing and public urination, and their arrests brought them out of the pool of 1.2 million New York fugitives who missed court dates or failed to pay fines for low-level offenses. The MTA's rules of conduct only prohibit taking up more than one seat when it interferes with the functioning of the train or the "comfort of other passengers." Nevertheless, the judge, instead of dismissing the midnight manspreading charge outright, issued what's known as an ACD, a decision meaning all the charges will be thrown out if the defendant doesn't get arrested for a certain amount of time.
Last summer, the activist group started sitting in the gallery of various courts for several hours every week or two, but Gangi said it was the first time its members had ever heard anyone involved in the system say "manspreading" out loud.
Manspreading arrests are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to numbers-driven policing in the subway system, which often takes place in the middle of the night, according to Gangi. Underground is where Broken Windows champion and police commissioner Bill Bratton got his start at the NYPD as transit chief, and fare evasion consistently ranks among the most common types of misdemeanor arrests. But the maddening tickets and criminal charges recounted in the PROP report come in many shapes and sizes, for behavior like putting a foot on a subway seat or walking between cars (always illegal, whether or not you're bothering anybody). Gangi said that he has no concrete proof that quotas exist, but that it's the only explanation for the volume of questionable cases he sees coming through court.
"My very strong sense, and I think other people see it the same way, is that it’s quota-driven," he said. "These kinds of tickets or arrests are low-lying fruit, they’re easy pickings."
The report notes that 89 percent of cases the group tracked ended with no further jail time. One man claimed an officer apologized to him after ticketing him for walking between subway cars, saying, “I’m sorry, but it’s the 26th of the month and I have to make my quota.” Evidence of rush hour douchebaggery is abundant in our archives, but in tracking hundreds of cases, Gangi claimed he never saw subway-etiquette-based charges leveled against someone actually blocking a door, say, or taking up a seat someone wanted.
"We've never seen someone ticketed or arrested because they were actually inconveniencing somebody," he said.
Here is a sampling of the subway horror stories, not to be confused with these, compiled by another activist group looking for the state to fund the MTA:
- On a Saturday night in spring, a Legal Aid lawyer in the Manhattan arraignment part represented four defendants in a row who had been arrested for having a foot up on a subway seat. One case stood out for the attorney: a 22 year old African-American man, a college student with a part-time job, who had an appropriate ID and no criminal record, had to spend over 24 hours in jail. A police officer arrested him when the train was four stops away from his house.
- A young African-American woman, a student at LaGuardia College, had three punitive interactions with NYPD officers in a year's time: the first was a summons for swiping her school MetroCard on Memorial Day; next was another summons, this time for having her foot on a subway seat; in the third encounter, the officer charged her with being in a park after dusk and cuffed and arrested her because she hadn't shown up in court for her two summonses. Her failure to appear had resulted in her becoming one of the more than one million fugitives from justice who live in NYC, an unfortunate status achieved by not keeping a court date to clear up a ticket for a minor infraction. "I'm a criminal now," she said in a bewildered tone, "even though my friends call me such a good girl."
- At 2:30 in the morning at the Canal Street station in downtown Manhattan, police officers arrested three New Yorkers at the same time: a young white woman charged with foot on a subway seat — although there were no other passengers in the car; and two young African- American men, ages 18 and 19, charged with walking between subway cars. The police locked up the woman and one of the teenagers for about 5 hours in a holding cell in the subway and released them with a DAT. The police held the other teenager overnight because they found an outstanding warrant on his record. As the woman was leaving the lock-up, an officer told her not to worry because the court would dismiss the charge against her.
- On a monitoring visit to the arraignment part in Manhattan's criminal court, a public defender motioned that she wanted to speak with us during a break in the proceedings. "My first 9 cases were all unlawful solicitation," she said, her head shaking in dismay. Unlawful solicitation means a person asks someone to swipe them onto the subway and is considered a punishable infraction even if the individual asked is willing to do so. We asked her about the race of the people charged. "All black," she replied.
- Suspecting her of fare-beating at a Harlem subway station, police officers threw a woman down, pressed her face to the ground, and kicked her in the ribs. She actually had just swiped herself through the turnstile and opened the gate to guide her baby in a stroller onto the station platform. Her older children, 7 and 14 years old, witnessed the beating. “I felt like I was raped in front of my children,” she said, adding that she had moved to Newark to escape the NYPD. The charges against her were dismissed and, through a lawsuit, she is seeking damages against the city.
The list goes on. Ninety-four percent of the 850 defendants observed by PROP were people of color, according to the report. Plenty more of the accounts take place above ground.