Starting Monday, police officers in Manhattan are supposed to stop arresting people for minor crimes like pissing and drinking in public and instead give them criminal summonses. The goal is to reduce the backlog in Manhattan Criminal Court, which officials told the New York Times could drop by about 10,000 cases per year.
To be sure, pissing in public, along with making unreasonable amounts of noise and littering and other petty offenses targeted by "broken windows" policing, remains illegal. But instead of being arrested, most violators will now be asked to appear before a judge and answer questions. The judge can then decide whether to dismiss the case or impose a penalty.
The joint decision between the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance preempts a broader proposed change to policing in New York. In January, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito unveiled the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2016; if passed, it would give cops the discretion to hand out either civil penalties or (criminal) summonses, as called for under the new Manhattan policy, for low-level offenses. The law would require agencies like the Parks Department to amend the way it deals with violators within its jurisdictions.
Either way, this new trend in NYC policing should allow officers to focus more on serious, violent crimes and less on paperwork for minor, goofy ones. But critics say summonses can be overused–– partially because they are so easy to hand out––and disproportionately affect poor communities that are over-policed. After all, under both the new Manhattan policy and the proposed city-wide law, if you have a warrant out for your arrest, you will still be detained. And critics say many people of color get slapped with warrants after failing to appear for petty BS raps.
Instead, some police reformers hope the city-wide conversation about criminal backlog will lead to wider, more systemic changes when it comes to who gets pegged for, say, illegally riding a bike on the sidewalk.
"We would like to see police policies changed to eliminate the disparate treatment of communities of color," Seymour W. James Jr., the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, told the Times.
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Photo via Flickr user Aurelien Guichard