Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
While progressives and reformers wax poetic about reducing low-level arrests, one group is making it happen: the NYPD. Not out of some newfound understanding about the moral and practical dangers of bringing the full might of the state down on people suspected of loitering, but rather as part of a coordinated hissy fit borne of a profound misunderstanding about the value New Yorkers place on these low-level arrests.
Last month, after Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner, was fired, the president of the city’s largest police union encouraged his 24,000 rank-and-file members to do less policing. “We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job,” Patrick Lynch, the longtime president of the Police Benevolent Association, said. “We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.” It was a warning to the public as well, criminologists say, but one predicated on the idea that the public wants low-level arrests. The truth is, the slowdown has been pretty good for everyone.
“The death of Eric Garner after he was put in a chokehold by NYPD officers for selling loose cigarettes was a flashpoint for a reason,” Dara Lind wrote for Vox after the last NYPD slowdown, at the end of 2014. “In the video of Garner’s encounter with police, he can be heard saying, ‘Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.’”
The Daily Appeal spoke to Alice Fontier, the managing director of the criminal defense practice at The Bronx Defenders. I asked Fontier about how the slowdown has played out in criminal court in the Bronx, one of the most heavily policed counties in the country. Over the last few months, Fontier said, there had been at least 100 people at any given time who have been arrested and are waiting to be arraigned. During the slowdown, that number dropped to somewhere between 30 and 40 people. “I was in arraignments, and most of the misdemeanors that came through were ones with actual complainants, like assaults or petit larceny from a store, not the police observation ones, like driving on a suspended license and trespassing,” she said. “I haven’t seen a single person arrested for resisting arrest or obstructing government administration.”
Fontier pointed out that during the last slowdown, the PBA urged its members not to make arrests “unless absolutely necessary,” which indicated to many that police were making plenty of unnecessary arrests. “That’s the reality. They really are unnecessary. There are far too many police officers doing far too many things all of the time.” She added, “It’s incredible, because nothing is happening [during this slowdown], things aren’t exploding, there are no waves of violent crime, they just aren’t making so many silly arrests that they shouldn’t be making in the first place.”
This “just demonstrates conclusively that what they are doing between slowdowns is actually the problem,” she said. “They’re overpolicing Black and brown neighborhoods, arresting people for things that do not impact the safety of the community, and ruining lives for the sake of saying that they made arrests.” To the PBA, she said, “thank you for demonstrating that you have been doing too much. Let’s scale this thing back.”
As Matt Ford wrote in The Atlantic about the 2014 slowdown, “the police union’s phrasing—officers shouldn’t make arrests ‘unless absolutely necessary’—begs the question: How many unnecessary arrests was the NYPD making before now?” Ford posits that the slowdown “challenges the fundamental tenets” of broken-windows policing. “If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven’t they done it before?”
One empirical study published in the journal Nature presented evidence that “proactive policing—which involves systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations—is positively related to reports of major crime.” The authors examined the halt to proactive policing in late 2014 and early 2015, analyzing several years of unique data obtained from the NYPD, and found that “civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased during and shortly after sharp reductions in proactive policing. The results challenge prevailing scholarship as well as conventional wisdom on authority and legal compliance, as they imply that aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts.”
Data from the latest slowdown seems to indicate a similar result.