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NYPD Unreformed

Nick Malinowski Jun 12, 2014

Much of the establishment left has praised and supported Mayor Bill de Blasio for promoting what he constantly describes as a progressive agenda. Recent breaks with the Bloomberg administration in paid sick leave, access to pre-school education, housing policy and a promise to increase the city’s minimum wage have garnered attention. In general, de Blasio’s commissioner appointments at city agencies — also applauded by liberals — reflect an apparently genuine interest in policy change. However, more than five months into his administration, the mayor has done little to make good on campaign promises to reform a New York Police Department that had come to be seen by many as running off the rails.

A few hollow actions — such as withdrawing a Bloomberg-era appeal in the federal stop-and-frisk litigation and disbanding the already defunct Zone Assessment Unit that was used to monitor the Muslim community — have drawn muted praise from some police accountability advocates, but the NYPD under new Commissioner Bill Bratton still looks very much the same as it has in years past. More troubling, early data on this year’s policing trends point to an NYPD that is already taking a more expansive and invasive approach under the guise of progressive ideals.

Subway Performers, Jaywalkers and the Homeless

In the first months of 2014 there were dramatic increases in arrests of subway performers, jaywalkers and the homeless. Trespassing arrests are up nearly 30 percent in 2014. Bratton has recently taken on policing graffiti with increased zeal, arming police officers with their own spray paint to cover up tags — and calling graffiti “the first sign of the disease that is criminal behavior.” At a recent function at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Bratton decried vandals as “bastards” who drive him “out of [his] mind.” Just weeks before, in response to a protest by mothers whose sons had been killed by the NYPD — including those of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Ramarley Graham — Bratton implied that any sort of criminality justified police shootings.

In larger trends, felony arrests are down, while arrests for misdemeanors and violations are up, according to figures given by de Blasio in his presentation of the NYPD’s proposed 2014 budget. In March, the NYPD made more arrests for marijuana possession than in any month over the second half of 2013 — doubling down on a practice that candidate de Blasio had decried as “unjust and unfair” last summer. The racial inequities that were highlighted by de Blasio then continued unabated. Over the first three months of 2014 just seven people were arrested for marijuana in the mostly white neighborhood of Park Slope. A little further east in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Crown Heights, 130 people were arrested for similar infractions; in the predominantly Black neighborhood of East New York, there were 438 marijuana arrests. 

Bratton’s philosophical adherence to many aspects of “Broken Windows” policing — a term coined by current NYPD consultant George Kelling and others to describe how minor disorder leads to serious crime — underpins the increases in low-level arrests for behaviors that Bratton considers to be disorderly. 

This fundamental assumption behind “Broken Windows” has never been proven to be correct. In fact, the most authoritative studies on the subject refute its efficacy as a crime-fighting tool. Because of the extreme collateral consequences of a criminal conviction in New York State — loss of access to everything from housing to financial aid and employment — it’s a pretty big gamble to try out on the 400,000 or so people who are arrested each year in New York. Of course Bratton, in the time-honored tradition of police commissioners in New York City, ensures that this experimentation plays out primarily in communities with little access to political power — communities that are low-income, largely immigrant, Black or Latino.

The new police commissioner’s zero-tolerance approach led to the death of Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old veteran who was arrested for sleeping in an abandoned public housing stairwell. He was unable to make $2,500 bail and died two weeks later on February 15 in solitary confinement at Rikers Island; an unnamed corrections staffer told news reporters at the time that the man “basically baked to death” after temperatures in his cell soared past 100 degrees. The death is tragic and even from a policy standpoint, makes little sense. It cost at least $6,000 to house Murdough during his stay in city jails; costs associated with his arrest, criminal defense and prosecution add at least another $3,000. Briefly, the city could have paid Murdough’s rent for more than a year; the benefits of arresting him are hard to comprehend, particularly for his family now. 

The NYPD under Bratton remains, in broad strokes, essentially similar to the NYPD under Ray Kelly and Michael Bloomberg — with the chilling of dissent from police watchdog groups being the primary differentiation. But Bratton’s history, in addition to more recent comments, points to a future that is perhaps even more sinister. 

Surveillance State

Bratton has, with little public opposition, laid out the groundwork for a far more invasive police presence throughout the city and has spoken publicly, in a way Ray Kelly never did, about the essential role of the police in facilitating gentrification. Throughout his career Bratton has taken a military position with regard to the role of the police — he sees his troops on the right side of a war against “criminals.” He is forever casting an expanding “crime-fighting” net. Bratton has stated his support for the use of drones for surveillance and will soon be arming the 35,000 officers of the NYPD with tablets with which they can quickly scan license plates, track vehicles as they move about the city and check warrants; facial recognition software is surely not far behind. 

“The challenge in the 21st century is how do we keep the trust of the public when we are going to be so potentially invasive into the privacy of their lives through our technology,” Bratton said in a recent appearance at the 92nd Street Y.

A memo leaked from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an NYPD oversight agency, indicated that police have begun to use summonses as a pretext for searches and frisks, even without suspicion of weapon possession — the constitutional threshold for a frisk during a police encounter. Searches subsequent to arrests have a long tradition at the NYPD and other police departments, but searches subsequent to summonses — of which there are 500,000 a year in New York for behaviors ranging from spitting, playing loud music and having open containers of alcohol to biking on the sidewalk — would provide a level of surveillance authority that has yet to be seen inside the United States. While demographic information for summonses is not recorded by the NYPD, a recent study by the CUNY School of Law showed that they are almost exclusively doled out in neighborhoods that are not majority white.

In Bratton’s hands, even less overtly offensive programs such as Vision Zero, a de Blasio plan ostensibly aimed at reducing pedestrian fatalities, has become simply another foothold through which to extend police authority. George Kelling, who previously told the New York Times that traffic stops were an untapped resource as a pretext for other investigations, recently suggested that traffic enforcement be used to address street crime. “A lot of criminals are bad drivers,” Kelling explained at a panel discussion last November. 

Most recently, Bratton has been beating the drum for predictive policing — the use of data analytics to create algorithms with the potential to help police pre-empt crime. But if the data inputs are culled from police resources, they will reflect the ideologies and biases of the department. According to the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Privacy SOS blog: “The algorithms simply reproduce the unjust policing system we’ve got, and dangerously, add a veneer of ‘objectivity’ to that problem.”

Nick Malinowski is a social worker, journalist and activist based in Brooklyn.

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