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The NYPD Makes 20,000 Misdemeanor Arrests Monthly — And It's Costing the City $400 Million a Year

Advocates and criminal justice experts describe the enormous number of misdemeanor arrests as part of the “broken windows” theory of policing, championed by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton.
December 17, 2014, 9:45am
Photo by Giacomo Barbaro

The New York City Police Department is again under fire following weeks of unrest over the grand jury decision in the death of Eric Garner, a black Staten Islander who died after an officer put him in a chokehold during an arrest on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes — this time for what critics claim is its use of misdemeanor arrests to target low-income people of color.

According to a report by the Police Reform Organization Project (PROP), the NYPD makes an average of 20,000 misdemeanor arrests a month, 90 percent of which result in the individual who was arrested walking free out of court.

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The group used data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services to estimate that the arrests, 87 percent of which are of people of color, cost the city more than $400 a million a year.

"The point we're making is there's no real public safety return on this expensive and resource-consuming practice," Robert Gangi, director of PROP, told VICE News. The city would be better served, he added, if the police "allocated those resources to either having officers focus on serious crimes — real crimes — or allocate them to neighborhood services or community programs that help to strengthen families, keep young people in school, and improve jobs and healthcare."

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Neither the NYPD nor Mayor Bill de Blasio's office returned requests for comment. Law enforcement groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Policing Organizations also did not respond. The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the largest NYPD labor union, declined to comment.

Advocates and criminal justice experts describe the enormous number of misdemeanor arrests as part of the "broken windows" theory of policing, championed by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, in which officers aggressively monitor areas for vandalism, disorderly conduct, and petty offenses in order to discourage an atmosphere of lawlessness and diminish the likelihood of more serious crimes.

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Though broken windows policing has come under increasing scrutiny, the strategy has been linked to a reduction in major crimes in a small but significant way, according to Rutgers University criminal justice professor Andres Rengifo, who has studied the NYPD's tactics for more than a decade. But the price may not be worth it, he cautioned.

"One wonders whether it's a cost-effective policy in terms of the harm that may come out of enforcing that kind of policy, even though at same time you may find an effect on crime," Rengifo told VICE News. "When safety is defined by the presence of police in a community, that's something that cannot be sustained. It damages the relationship between citizens and police, and over time citizens may say, 'We don't want to talk to police. Every time we call them we're the ones that get arrested, or the police don't believe us, and we have alternative ways of dealing with our problems.' That's undesirable."

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Gangi and the coalition of reform advocates he works with at PROP echoed that concern, arguing that broken windows policing has resulted in bad blood between cops and communities, with citizens resentful and resistant to frequent stops by police.

"Stop and frisk was a symptom," Gangi said, referring to the NYPD program in which officers would stop and question pedestrians and search them for drugs or weapons — a practice criticized as a form of profiling. "But the real disease is broken windows."

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He described Eric Garner's death as a dramatic example of the fallout of such an approach, noting that Garner had been charged multiple times for low-level crimes. Shortly before his death, he was captured on video telling NYPD officers to stop harassing him.

"It breeds resistance, resentment, and distrust, and is more likely to lead to the kind of interaction between Garner and police," Gangi said.

Rengifo said that although there are grounds for valid criticism of the NYPD's aggressive tactics, he believes that steps the department has taken to improve the situation should be acknowledged.

"It's an organization that has many weaknesses and faults, but one that I think has shown, at least in recent years, a little bit of an interest in changing," he said.

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He pointed out that the number of police stops each year has gone from nearly 500,000 three years ago to fewer than 50,000 this year, for example — though the drop could be due in part to a change in mayoral leadership and to a federal court's decision in 2013 that stop and frisk was unconstitutional.

But the reduction in stops might also be connected to the rise of misdemeanor arrests.

"If police officers aren't stopping as many people as they used to, what are they doing instead?" Rengifo asked. "My worry is that they're shifting perhaps to the type of broken windows enforcement that requires a high number of stops to a new form that is the misdemeanor arrest. It's important to pay attention to how law enforcement is changing. With closer attention, we may just see the same underlying principle with a different practice."

Gangi and his group proposed that the NYPD replace its quota system, in which officers are evaluated based on tickets written or arrests made, with a system that rewards officers for positive interactions with the community. PROP hopes that its research will prompt city officials to change the policing tactics used by the NYPD.

"It's bad practice, it's racist practice, it's fucking immoral practice, and it's been going on in New York City for decades," Gangi remarked. "So we're putting the pressure on the powers that be, in particular on Mayor de Blasio, to change it."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Flickr