The City Council today enacted a series of bills that will give police officers the discretion to steer certain low-level broken windows offenses like drinking in public, littering, and public urination to civil court, rather than criminal court.
"Nobody who has littered or made excessive noise... should bear the brunt of the criminal justice system," said Queens Council Member Rory Lancman, a bill sponsor, on Wednesday.
"Every offense that was prohibited yesterday will still be prohibited tomorrow, but we are moving these offenses primarily into the civil justice system, so that people can be held accountable for their conduct but not have the heavy hammer of the criminal justice system come down on their head."
The parameters outlined in the group of eight bills, known collectively as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, are already used for offenses like riding a bike on the sidewalk or turnstile jumping. The new laws encompass littering, public urination, public consumption of alcohol, breaking certain park rules, and making excessive noise.
Under current law, anyone issued with a criminal summons is given a date to appear in court. Miss a court date, and a warrant is issued. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 40% of summonses result in an arrest warrant being issued for a failure to appear in court. Warrants, in turn, can hinder eligibility for a job, child custody, or financial aid.
According to the City, there are 1.5 million open warrants in NYC dating back to 1980. Of those, 1.1 million belong to unique individuals. "This has... both individual consequences for those issued warrants and for the criminal justice system's use of resources," said Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice Director Elizabeth Glazer in January.
Bill sponsors estimate that the new laws will prevent about 10,000 New Yorkers per year from getting a criminal record. The NYPD will also be required to document and make public the number of summonses to appear in civil court versus criminal court, as well as the age, race, and gender of each person summonsed.
On WNYC's Brian Lehrer show on Tuesday, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton reiterated that he supports the legislation in large part because it preserves his officers' right to make an arrest.
"The rights, responsibilities, and capabilities of my police officers don't change at all," he said. "If anything we're giving them more discretion... My officers still have the right to make an arrest if the behavior is egregious or inappropriate."
"We don't want people to think it's okay to urinate in the street," said Staten Island Council Member and Assembly minority leader Steven Matteo, voting 'no.' "This package takes the teeth out of these [Broken Widows] laws."
Flatbush Council Member Jumaane Williams countered that the tone of some of the bills' opponents was derogatory towards communities of color.
"The paternalism in this opposition is sometimes frustrating," he said. "Our constituents understand the need for police. They also understand they don't want police brutality. They want [everyone] to be dealt with with equity. They don't want someone who plays loud music to not get a loan for college."
But while some advocates have praised the proposals as an effective way to prevent New Yorkers—a disproportionate number of them young men of color—from accumulating criminal records for quality of life offenses, others are concerned that it still empowers the NYPD to stop and ID citizens for those same offenses.
Monifa Bandele, a Spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform, said earlier this year that while summons reform is a "positive first step," New Yorkers also deserve the passage of the Right To Know Act—legislation that would require NYPD officers to identify themselves to civilians and provide specific reasoning for their activities.
"It is also essential that the Council simultaneously advance [reforms] to end the policing abuses that make some New Yorkers and communities the disproportionate target of low-level enforcement in the first place," she said.
"I'm very pleased to know that [the Criminal Justice Reform Act] will reduce the penalties for low-level offenses," said East New York Council Member Inez Barron, before making her 'yes' vote. "My problem with the bill is that the guidance [as to] when a person will be issued a civil summons is still arbitrary, discretionary, and up to the officer.... The CCRB has documented that unlawful stops are still common."
"I'm voting for this bill, because I think this is an opportunity... to move forward with the Right To Know bills," she added. "The potential benefits of this bill are significant."
Endorsing the legislation on WNYC, Commissioner Bratton said that—thanks to the right to arrest—it would not get in the way of his broken windows policing method. "If you decriminalized these activities then I would be seriously doubtful about our ability to effectively control disorder," he said. "And disorder not controlled leads in my opinion to much more serious crime."