Imagine a place where the local police annually stop and frisk about 530,000 people, arrest 360,000, and issue summonses to another 600,000, for a staggering total of over 1.5 million such law-enforcement encounters. Imagine as well that close to 90 percent of those arrested, stopped and frisked, or issued a summons are people of color. You need not imagine; that is the reality in New York City.
The numbers likely suffer from underreporting. The half-a-million stopped and frisked figure comes from the New York Police Department. As part of a federal court settlement in the aftermath of the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, the NYPD was required to keep and distribute to the City Council records of every stop and frisk. Given the numbers, it is not surprising that the NYPD failed to make the data available until compelled to do. As for the accuracy of the data, it is hardly cynical to suggest that not every police officer fills out a form in every case.
Is 1.5 million the price of effective policing? With the convergence of the economic meltdown and the emergence of new leadership at the federal and state levels, the time is ripe for a thorough social and economic cost-benefit analysis.
Consider the 530,000 stops and frisks. If these encounters yielded guns or drugs, then the numbers might reflect lots of crime and effective police work to catch or stop it. However, only 10 percent of the 530,000 were arrested or even given a summons. The other 90 percent? They were left to deal with their anger and humiliation.
Where is the outrage and clarion call for commissions? On close to half-a-million occasions, people, overwhelmingly black and Latino, were stopped and searched for no articulable crime, and yet there is barely a ripple of audible protest. As has been repeatedly touted, crime is down, way down. The majority of New Yorkers feel safer. Who is going to be heard to complain?
Criminal justice in this city presents a stark picture of a racial divide. While blacks and Latinos comprise approximately 50 percent of the population, they were the victims of almost 85 percent of the stops and frisks. The NYPD rejects accusations of racial profiling or targeting, and suggests that the racial imbalance is a by-product of the officers acting based on information, such as physical descriptions, that they received. More likely is the situation as described by Leonardo Blair, an African-American New York Post reporter who was accosted by the police for no discernible reason beyond his race and his location (the Bronx). Regardless of the officers’ underlying motivations, it is an incontrovertible and accepted fact that young men of color are often unjustifiably stopped.
The 360,000 arrests raise similar questions. In the heralded Broken Windows theory that spawned New York’s quality-of-life policing, the authors candidly observed that they could “offer no wholly satisfactory answer” to the possibility that race might play a pernicious role in the implementation of their proposal. Years later, one of the authors, James Q. Wilson, wrote that one way to get guns off the street was to increase the numbers of stops and frisks. He opined that innocent people would also be caught up in the process, and that young black and Hispanic men would bear the brunt of the ramped-up policing. As outrageous as it seemed at the time, his proposal is now in effect, de facto if not de jure.
The result is a quality-of-life arrests blitzkrieg. With nary a word of public protest, the NYPD has shifted its attention from squeegees to bike-riding on sidewalks, beer-drinking on stoops, and occupying two seats on the subway. If 1.5 million doesn’t raise eyebrows, then how many will? 2 million? Would crime skyrocket if the NYPD declined to make arrests for open container violations or referred all such offenders to civil, administrative venues? Do such arrests stave off social disorder and serious crime or are we at the point of diminishing returns? In a world of increasing global awareness, we must ask why no other country criminalizes such a vast array of nuisance behavior.
That 1.5 million figure should compel an analysis of the costs of quality-of-life policing, especially as the economic outlook darkens and commentators forecast an increase in crime. We cannot afford to ignore the racial impact, nor should we accept on blind faith that order maintenance policing, arresting more people for less serious acts, ensures a prosperous and safe city.
Scholars already question the putative benefits and whether quality-of-life policies are the primary cause for the decrease in crime. They suggest, instead, an array of factors, including favorable economic conditions in the 1990s, changing demographics (e.g., a decrease in the numbers of young men), dissipation of the crack pandemic, and the NYPD’s use of computerized tracking systems and other technologies to respond more quickly and effectively to crime and crime patterns. Other jurisdictions saw their crime rates drop without resorting to so-called zero tolerance tactics.
And the costs are enormous. One study found that the ever-widening law enforcement net was catching primarily two groups – older offenders with myriad social issues like homelessness and mental illness, and young men of color with no prior arrests. For young men, the stigma and emotional impact of their arrest is often coupled with a host of debilitating consequences that follow; they may find themselves rendered ineligible for student loans, various licenses and benefits, public housing and more. Criminalizing so many so young renders them eminently less employable.
The cost of handcuffing, literally and figuratively, generations of men of color cannot be cavalierly ignored or accepted as a price of quality-of-life policing. What impact does it have on a young man to be treated and labeled as a criminal for a minor offense or, worse yet, for simply walking down the street? A black teenager stopped and frisked for no apparent reason, or arrested for riding a bike on the sidewalk, may naturally believe that no matter what he does, arrest is inevitably a part of his life. Petty arrests and rampant stops and frisks also breed mistrust, suspicion and antipathy toward the police. This, in turn, extends the negative impact beyond the individual and to his community and society at large.
The cost to a civil society cannot be discounted. The emphasis on order maintenance policing, captured by the popular phrase “zero tolerance,” must lead to a feeling, especially for people of color, of living in an occupied territory. Put bluntly, when do vigorous efforts to establish social control devolve into social oppression?
Then there are the direct economic costs. In addition to law enforcement expenses, there are the associated court costs – judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court clerks, court officers, court reporters, and so on. The fiscal crisis should serve as a stimulus to examine the NYPD budget beyond such basics as the numbers of officers and their salaries. Equally important to how many officers are on the payroll, is what they are doing on the street.
We must acknowledge and address the disparate racial impact of present policing policies. Some states have created commissions charged with reducing racial disparity from arrest to final disposition. Others have suggested requiring racial impact statements for any proposed criminal justice legislation or policy. Attorney General Eric Holder famously stated that we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to confronting race. We should respond to his challenge and confront the racial impact of quality-of-life policing in our city.
Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law, and former executive director of the Fund for Modern Courts and a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division.