When a federal court found the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional in August 2013, New Yorkers concerned about racial profiling let out a collective cheer. Over the year since, that cheer turned to a dissatisfied grumble, then a roar.
“Stop-and-frisk is still a policy that’s very actively used in our police department,” Jose Lopez, lead organizer with Make The Road New York, told VICE News. “And when you look at the numbers, it’s still young black and brown New Yorkers.”
Stop-and-frisk, the NYPD’s policy of questioning and patting down people on the street seemingly at random, hasn’t yet been remodeled. According to data provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the numbers have remained steady for the past ten years: in the first quarter of 2014, 81 percent of those stopped turned out to be innocent of any wrongdoing, and 83 percent of all stopped were black or Latino.
But stop-and-frisk is part of a larger problem, say its opponents. If New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s “Broken Windows” philosophy of crime-busting is the multi-limbed monster that spawned stop-and-frisk, then cutting off one arm won’t stop the beast from devouring black and Latino men.
The Broken Windows model of fighting crime is based on the idea that if police target small infractions, it will intimidate people from committing more serious crimes. Bratton was reinstated as police commissioner in January, but his first turn as top cop came in 1994 under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose prime mandate was improving New York’s quality of life and thus attacking so-called “quality-of-life offenses.”
But it has come under question whether the quality of life that Bratton and Giuliani dreamed of was intended only for white New Yorkers.
A New York Daily News story on Monday analyzed data given to the paper by the NYCLU that showed 81 percent of all “pink tickets,” or summonses doled out for minor infractions, went to black and Latino residents. In a series of data tables, inherent racial disparities became glaringly clear.
'Broken Windows policing creates flash points of conflict that easily escalate.'
For the minor offense of riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, for example, the largely black- and Latino-populated Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, and East New York accounted for a total of 50,602 summons tickets between 2001 and 2013. The largely white areas of Tribeca and Manhattan’s Financial District got a total of 325, and suburban Tottenville on Staten Island received a whopping 12.
“There are people in Brooklyn Heights and the Upper East Side riding bicycles on the sidewalk,” Lopez told VICE News. “There’s a huge problem in our city when it comes to race. And folks will say, just look at the crime data and who’s in our prison system. But people forget to ask why that is — why are black and Latino men getting stopped more, getting more summonses, and getting into the criminal justice system?”
Even the court staffers attested. One clerk at the main summons court told the Daily News the racial disparity was “mind-blowing.”
“You’ll see a disproportionately large percentage of young male blacks and young male Hispanics,” a second court employee told the paper. “It seems that only a certain kind of people are being targeted with this.”
So is Broken Windows the new stop-and-frisk? No, it’s the same thing. The NYPD’s directive is to clamp down on small violations, hoping that this will deter bigger and more violent offenses. But community leaders say the two types of crime are unrelated, and the policy makes residents feel terrorized in their own neighborhoods.
"Broken Windows policing creates flash points of conflict that easily escalate," Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director, told VICE News. "Police resources should be spent keeping New Yorkers safe, not alienating the community from those who are supposed to protect and serve them."
The recent death of Eric Garner, a man who was frequently ticketed for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street, is a perfect example of this. Witnesses said he wasn’t doing that on July 17, when he was killed by police chokehold, but his “record” of tiny, victimless crimes was used to justify excessive force.
On July 25, the New York Times editorial board blasted Broken Windows policing as the cause of death in the Garner case. “How terrible it would be if Eric Garner died for a theory, for the idea that aggressive police enforcement against minor offenders… is the way to a safer, more orderly city.”
Lopez told VICE News that pink tickets aren’t just a way to combat crime, but can sometimes contribute to building a criminal record where there was previously none, especially when officers ticket teens who may not understand the consequences of a summons.
“There are lots of young people who come through our doors and say, I got a ticket for cutting through the park on my way home. And [they] threw it away because it was a dumb infraction or because they didn’t want their parents to find out,” said Lopez. “And there are lots of serious consequences if you don’t show up to court. That can turn into a warrant for your arrest.”
For all the frustrations expressed by communities facing police harassment over minor infractions, there’s a small glimmer of hope on the horizon.
The stop-and-frisk lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in 2012 may have won last year, but a series of technicalities and appeals have so far blocked the remedial process from getting started. That changed on July 30, when a federal district judge denied an appeal brought by several police unions.
Now, the only thing standing in the way of remediation (essentially, a series of meetings between police and community groups) is an appeal filed by Bloomberg, which current Mayor Bill De Blasio announced he would withdraw this year.
This morning, the City of New York filed a motion to withdraw the appeal, following through on De Blasio's campaign promise. The Bloomberg-era city appeal was the last step blocking the court-ordered remediation process.
Because the proceedings have been held up by appeals, there’s no set date yet for the remediation to begin. But when it does it should be interesting, to say the least, as one of the groups invited to participate is Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition that has actively protested “broken windows” policing.
The CCR will be there too. Baher Azmy, that group’s legal director, told VICE News that even though the stop-and-frisk lawsuit doesn’t address pink-ticket summonses specifically, “they grow out of the same infected garden.”
“If the NYPD takes the court order and the remedial process ordered by the court seriously, then the abuse of summonses should decrease as well,” added Azmy.
Azmy said that the court ordered the NYPD to overhaul the systems that have allowed racial profiling to flourish, so improved training and supervision has to be implemented in addition to meetings with community representatives.
“[The NYPD] will have to improve auditing to ensure that stops are valid rather than just meeting quota,” Azmy said. “It will make sure the police are acting constitutionally rather than just meeting numbers.”
Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara