Given the dispiriting – some would say alarming – result of our recent national election, we at PROP, along with other advocates, have determined that local elections are all the more important. And this year, none is more important than the NYC mayoral race, especially regarding the issue of abusive and discriminatory policing, especially since Bill de Blasio has proven such a disappointing leader in his ardent embrace of quota-driven “broken windows” policing. We have prepared a brief position paper laying out our case for sweeping changes at the NYPD that we plan to distribute widely and publicize aggressively with the central purpose of influencing the public debate sure to take place in our city in the coming months.
Police reforms for 2017 / Calling America Home
Over the past five years, in the course of our multi-faceted efforts – our advocacy, policy analysis, community organizing, public forums, petition drives, court monitoring, field research, gathering stories, videos, social media activities, and targeted street actions – we at PROP have become convinced that the NYPD’s unjust policies not only violate our country’s central founding principle of providing equal justice and opportunity for all its people but also that the Department’s racist practices are so entrenched, so long-standing that only fundamental and far-reaching changes can end, really end, abusive and discriminatory policing in our great city.
Here are some relevant facts and PROP findings:
- In 2015 the NYPD made over 20,000 arrests for the possession or sale of small amounts of marijuana. 92.5% of these arrests involved New Yorkers of color, this despite the research showing that white people use and sell the drug in equal or greater proportions than African-Americans and Latinos.
- Recently, defending his police reform record on WNYC radio, Mayor de Blasio stated that “… we stopped the arrests for low-level marijuana possession.” In fact, for the first nine months of 2016, the NYPD has made nearly 14,000 misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession, about 12% more than the figure for 2015.
- The highest category of NYPD arrests in 2015 were for fare evasion, over 29,000, 92%, involving New Yorkers of color. During that year NYPD officers also issued nearly 124,000 summonses for fare evasion, bringing the total number of punitive interactions between officers and New Yorkers for this offense to over 153,000 for the year or an average of nearly 420 per day.
- 94.9% of the NYPD’s juvenile arrests in 2015 involved African-American or Latino young people.
- 95-98% of the New Yorkers locked up on Rikers Island are African-American or Latino, so confined for two basic reasons: they are too poor to afford bail and the NYPD arrested them.
- Recently retired NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton claimed in an interview on the Today Show that the NYPD “targets behavior, not communities of color.”
- Over the past two years, PROP’s Court Monitoring Project, where volunteers sit in the criminal court arraignment parts of the city’s four major boroughs to observe and record who city officers arrest and on what charges, found that over 90% of the observed cases involved New Yorkers of color. Virtually none of the defendants, most of whom walked out of the courtroom after their arraignment, was even charged with a predatory or dangerous offense.
These and similar undeniable facts, among other things, have shown us that NYPD day to day practices are marked by a stark racial bias. We know, too, that political leaders, whatever their motivations, have at worst lied to the public about this ugly truth or at best have inadvertently misrepresented the harsh reality of NYPD on the ground practices. We know that the Department’s shameful history of targeting poor and marginalized ethnic groups has stretched over 170 years back to the establishment of the agency in 1845. The city’s powers at that time expected that a main purpose of the new agency would be to control and contain two unruly groups new to New York, recent Irish immigrants and freed black people, “free” because New York State abolished slavery in 1827.
We know, too, that Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, one of our city and country’s great progressives, in the 1930’s shelved the Harlem Riot Report, a document that he commissioned after street disturbances took place in the famed African-American community. The report sharply and explicitly criticized NYPD practices aimed at black New Yorkers, and LaGuardia deemed its contents too politically controversial to attend to or act on.
Given our knowledge of the history related to this issue, our well-founded skepticism about mainstream leaders’ willingness to effectively address the problem of discriminatory and abusive policing, and our understanding of how deeply embedded the problem is in the institutional policies, culture, and history of the NYPD, we at PROP have chosen as a principal strategy for 2017, a year of city-wide municipal elections, to focus our determined efforts on injecting sweeping reform proposals into the public debate.
Our recommended changes will aim to advance meaningful and substantive remedies that no mainstream politician will currently support. Not because they don’t make sense or are not the right thing to do, but because, like the report that LaGuardia ignored 80 or so years ago, they are too politically charged.
PROP’s proposed reforms for fundamental change will include:
- Abolishing “broken windows” policing that targets low-income New Yorkers of color for engaging in petty infractions that have been virtually decriminalized in well-off white communities.
- Eliminating the quota system for evaluating officers’ performance that emphasizes only their punitive interactions with New Yorkers and that, in effect, incentivizes bad policing.
- Dismissing Dan Pantaleo and all the officers who engaged in the reckless and irresponsible arrest of Eric Garner.
- Reducing the budget, personnel, resources, and power of the NYPD, the guiding principle being in part the time-honored shibboleth that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” applied to the unchecked power of the NYPD.
Specific reforms will include:
- Transferring traffic enforcement – in 2015 NYPD officers issued over 1 million traffic summonses – to another government agency. Why do we need an officer with a gun, badge, and club to pull someone over who’s driving a car with a broken tail light? Another relevant point: a number of the recent killings of black people by officers in different parts of the country started out as traffic stops. If other government personnel made those stops, the victimized Americans would still be alive.
- Having mental health professionals be the first responders to emergencies involving persons in psychiatric crisis. Now 911 dispatchers have 2 options, to send an officer or an ambulance. We propose removing the 911 unit from the NYPD and providing dispatchers with a list of mental health and social service organizations and community involved clergy for every neighborhood in the city. Professionals with years of training and preparation would arrive on the scene – the decision that physical restraints are needed would rest with them. Such a considered approach would save lives rather than take them.
- Disbanding NYPD units that, while focusing on specific groups and/or activity, are notorious for abusing their power and violating the rights of New Yorkers from vulnerable constituencies. Eliminated units would include the nuisance abatement, vice, and peddlers squads.
- Establishing an independent prosecutor’s office, separate from the executive branch and the boroughs’ district attorneys, whose sole purpose would be to investigate and to prosecute, when called for, all alleged acts of police brutality and excessive use of force, even in cases when the victim was armed or did not die.
America teaches her young people that she provides equal justice and opportunity for all people, not equal justice and opportunity for all except if you’re people of color, except if you’re poor. America teaches that under her legal system, you’re innocent until proven guilty, not that you’re innocent until proven guilty except if you’re poor, except if you’re an American of color. America teaches that her government is of, by, and for the people, not of, by, and for the people, except if you’re a non-white person, except if you’re a low-income person.
Our goal for 2017 is grandiose and, admittedly, quixotic: to, starting with New York City, call America home, to create an America, starting with the Big Apple, that adheres to the founding principles of which she is so justifiably proud. And it’s only by agreeing to and instituting fundamental and far-reaching changes, starting with her policing and criminal justice systems, that America can fulfill its stated vision of a just, livable, and inclusive society for all its people.