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The NYPD Slowdown Is Working, Let's Keep It

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The New York Times editorial board has reacted to the raw data of the NYPD slowdown with sweater-vested histrionics. "The madness has to stop," the editorial states. A lack of Broken Windows policing won't "unleash chaos," they argue, it's that "cops who refuse to do their jobs and revel in showing contempt to their civilian leaders are damaging the social order all by themselves." But a social order that requires us to needlessly detain and tax poor and minority New Yorkers isn't one worth preserving.

Tamping down on all forms of "disorder," from resting a foot on a subway seat to biking through a stop sign, isn't cheap. A recent report from the Police Reform Organizing Project showed that at the beginning of 2014, it cost the city $1,340,000 each day to arrest and process 648 misdemeanor arrests. Aggressive policing generates lawsuits, which prompt settlements—nearly half a billion dollars since 2009.

Those committing low-level offenses are then forced to help recoup the costs. The City reaps around a half a billion dollars a year in fines from parking tickets. In 2013, the most recent year available, New York City Criminal Courts collected more than $20 million in revenue from fines and summonses [PDF].

After assault, the second most-common charge at arraignment for misdemeanor arrests was turnstile jumping, followed by marijuana possession. And these are the charges that actually stick—nearly half don't.

The most common summons by a statistical mile is a violation for an open container of alcohol (nearly 120,000 summonses issued), followed by disorderly conduct, littering, and bicycling on the sidewalk (reckless driving is twelfth, behind "offensive matter in street/public place"). More money is collected from fines from arrests related to these petty violations than DWI fines (though there are other surcharges related to DWI).

Over the past decade, New York has also increased its surcharge fees for misdemeanor convictions from $140 to $200, and for convictions of a violation from $75 to $120 [PDF]. Around half of the courts' total income goes back into the City coffers.

Defendants who can't afford to pay fees face possible incarceration.

"Today, criminal justice actors rely on the income from LFOs (legal financial obligations) to meet their budgets for ordinary system operations," writes Ronald Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University. "When this happens, courts and other criminal justice actors become mercenaries, in effect working on commission."

Beyond the fiscal burdens on the city that Broken Windows imposes, what are the psychic costs of maintaining an overtime-driven police force trained to pounce on subway dancers and felons with equal vigor? If we're choking the court system with low-level offenders, is a 21-hour arrest-to-arraignment period something to be proud of?

Based on reports in the Times, the police are still visible, still observing people drinking mysterious liquids out of brown paper bags (in this case Red Bull), but they're not generating paperwork for petty crimes. Should they go back to doing so just to restore some perverse sense of "social order"?

It took more than a decade for the City to admit that it was wrong about the effectiveness of stop and frisk. It took Commissioner Bratton around eight months to reverse course on genuine marijuana decriminalization. If New York continues to be safe (and police start enforcing moving violations again) while cops focus their energies on serious criminal behavior, the Times should freak out that our elected officials and our police commissioner are too slow to adapt to a more civilized city.

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