If you’re a person of color in New York, one of the country’s most policed cities, you’re disproportionately likely to wind up in court for a minor charge. Though you’re almost certainly going to walk that day, you’ll probably still have to pay a fine, or lose a day of work to muddle through an arraignment hearing.
While the inner machinations of the city’s justice system are opaque, the numbers in court don’t lie: A new analysis of court proceedings across the city reveals stark patterns of structural bias that have historically defined the city’s police-civilian power structure. The field research of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) shows how on any given day a typical city courtroom may see dozens of arrestees, jail virtually none of them, and churn people needlessly through a dysfunctional legal bureaucracy.
Although the city has pledged to sharply limit marijuana prosecutions—a promising reform given the pervasiveness of racial profiling for minor drug crimes—advocates say the courtroom, even without an actual conviction, has become a different kind of criminal justice gauntlet.
PROP sent researchers to attend misdemeanor arraignments in every borough from January through August 2017, witnessed more than 1,600 proceedings, and observed that across all five boroughs, 1,438, nearly 90 percent, involved New Yorkers of color. About the same number of the defendants, 1,437, “walked out of the courtroom.” In every borough, people of color and whites face disparate treatment from the criminal justice system for minor infractions. So compared to the total population of the city—which is about 44 percent white, 25 percent black, 25 percent Latino and 13 percent Asian American—the prevalence of non-whites among the arraigned was vastly disproportionate. That is, while people of color are three times as likely as their white peers to be arraigned in court, the vast majority of all arrestees walk out, either pending another court date or pleading guilty to a minor charge, without detention.
To PROP director and co-author of the report Robert Gangi, the court monitoring report is a revealing snapshot of police impunity. The watchdog group’s research is designed to affirm reform activism with concrete data, as a tool for grassroots accountability initiatives, such as neighborhood “Copwatch” groups.
“The numbers we produce are undeniable…And what we see every time we go into the courtroom is the consequences of the starkly racially biased broken windows policing that the NYPD engages in,” Gangi told The Nation. The ineffectiveness of such police tactics is also apparent in PROP’s day-to-day observations of the courts: “Very rarely do we see anybody who we think would be considered dangerous or predatory” based on their charges, Gangi says. Among the most routine charges were fifth-degree pot possession, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, fare evasion (officially labeled as “theft of services”) and “trespass.”
Beyond curbing prosecutions for nonviolent pot-related violations and other common low-level offenses, there have been long standing calls for full decriminalization, so that marijuana violations do not result in arrest or even a fine. A blue-ribbon reform commission recently suggested that the De Blasio administration move immediately to decriminalize pot possession, sex work, fare evasion, and carrying a “gravity knife” (an offense linked to an arcane historical weapons statute), to decrease mass incarceration. Last year the police made about 17,500 pot-related arrests, about 86 percent of them of black and Latino individuals.
Still, the mayor has aligned with NYPD in adhering faithfully to broken windows policies while he attempts to rebrand the strategy as “quality of life policing.” The system currently reflects an enforcement-first strategy of targeting low-level offenses for arrest out of a belief that “cleaning up” disorderly behavior helps prevent crime and promote social cohesion.
PROP’s report coincides with a separate report by the Special Advisory Committee of the US Civil Rights Commission that sharply criticizes broken windows policing as undemocratic and biased. Denouncing NYPD practices linked to the mass criminalization black and brown youth, the panel recommended that the city redirect resources “to invest in community service or restorative justice programs as alternatives to criminal and civil summonses for all low- level, nonviolent crimes and violations, particularly for youth and those who are not repeat offenders.” The report also calls for greater institutional accountability through fuller disclosure of police misconduct records.
PROP’s court research provides a small snapshot of the results of everyday misdemeanor arrests, which make up the bulk of apprehensions, and to some degree they show that most arrestees are ultimately vindicated by the judiciary. Nonetheless, the evidence of overzealous policing also reveals the ineffectiveness of the system, as well as its underlying inequities.
“They walk out of the courtroom within a day or two of their arrest, so they’re back in the community,” Gangi says. “And what’s the purpose of arresting them?” Moreover, the potential harms far outweigh the benefits: “it’s blatantly racist practices that really do harm to people…[Unnecessary arrests] compromise their lives, compromise their well being.” He notes that the “collateral consequences” of excessive contact with the police expose innocent people to many forms of potentially brutal police interactions. The fatal encounters that have sparked controversy in recent years—the chokehold killing of Eric Garner, numerous unarmed victims of police shootings, or mass crackdowns on protesters—all reflect a climate of hostility and mistrust that compounds itself with every unnecessary clash between civilians and the authorities charged with protecting them.
For the growing grassroots police reform movement, the inertia of the power imbalance poses an overlooked threat to public safety. The long-term impact of overaggressive policing is a waste of public resources and constant distraction from genuine crime threats. The city’s police force, the nation’s largest, with 36,000 officers, consumes nearly $5 billion in annual taxpayer funds.
The overarching political barrier to common-sense reforms, Gangi adds, is simply that “the NYPD, like I assume most police departments in large urban jurisdictions, has unchecked power. There’s literally no mainstream politician in New York that raises serious questions about what the NYPD is up to.”
PROP’s extensive yearly reports often fail to interest local reporters, Gangi mused, because they generally look the same from year to year. In his view, though, “That’s the news—that these practices have not changed. They continue to inflict harm on people.”