In case you missed it, this week saw the first mini-scandal of the de Blasio era.
Late Monday night, a Brooklyn pastor named Orlando Findlayter was pulled over for failing to signal a turn. He was driving with a suspended license, so the police brought him to the precinct station, where it was learned that he had two outstanding warrants from a civil disobedience arrest last fall. Findlayter endorsed Mayor de Blasio and served on his inaugural committee. The mayor was told about the arrest by a City Hall aide and called an NYPD official to learn what was going on, and that official called the commander of the precinct where Findlayter had been arrested. Shortly afterward, the minister was released with a desk appearance ticket instead of being held over until court reopened in the morning. The police official de Blasio spoke with said later that by the time she called the precinct commander, he had already decided to release Findlayter.
Critics say the mayor pulled strings for a political ally—or at the very least, that Findlayter was cut a break because of his connections. The NYPD Patrol Guide says desk appearance tickets “will not be issued in the following circumstances: a) Arrest on a warrant.” But precinct commanders might have latitude to break that rule, particularly when the underlying offense is minor, he knows the person and letting him go might foster police-community relations.
In fact, statistics indicate the NYPD is becoming more and more likely to simply let people go with a piece of paper. From 2002 to 2012, the number of arrests by the NYPD dropped 8 percent. The number of desk appearance tickets jumped 314 percent—from 5 percent of the total to 21 percent. There are several possible reasons: more arrests these days are for misdemeanors rather than felonies. Keeping detainees in lock-up is expensive. State law requires the system to arraign detained people within twenty-four hours, so the police have good reason to try to limit the number of people they have to get to court each day.
Part of the uproar over the Findlayter incident stems from popular misconceptions of what is supposed to happen when someone is arrested for something.
We read all the time about how someone arrested for some terrible thing was given “ridiculously low bail.” When someone isn’t locked up to await trial, we assume the system has cut her a break. But before someone is convicted of a crime, the only thing the system is supposed to do is take the minimum steps necessary to make sure they show up for trial. Sometimes that means high bail, low bail or no bail. Occasionally it means keeping someone under lock and key. So, someone famous may get low bail because they’re unlikely to flee prosecution. It doesn’t seem fair, but it doesn’t mean they’re getting a break, exactly. Same goes for a minister whom a precinct commander knows. The guy ain’t running to Canada, so let him go. (As it turns out, Findlayter showed up for court the next day and got the warrants vacated.)
That’s not to say the system is perfect. City Limits has written a lot about how bail (even when set very low) distorts the criminal justice system and damages low-income people’s lives. New York’s court system is looking to change that.
If the Findlayter story goes into a second week, maybe we’ll learn more about whether something funky happened, though it doesn’t seem to be the case. Regardless, maybe one takeaway is that the NYPD should hold fewer people overnight, no matter what collar they wear or whom they’ve endorsed, and continue a trend of trusting people to show up for court themselves.