Why N.Y. police won't arrest people who commit minor offenses

Under the reforms, New York police will have the discretion to issue a summons instead of arresting suspects of minor crimes.

Mike Segar/Reuters
New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers patrol in lower Manhattan in New York.

Beginning March 7, New York police officers will no longer arrest people for minor infractions such as drinking alcohol in public, urinating or littering in Manhattan, or riding between subway cars, city officials announced Tuesday.

The joint decision by the N.Y. Police Department and the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., gives officers discretion to determine if someone poses a risk to public safety before arresting them in a move the Manhattan District Attorney's Office said will remove 10,000 cases each year from the courts and help reduce its backlog. 

Current policing policies are often criticized as unfairly affecting minorities. 

The changes will "help focus police and prosecutorial resources on those who commit serious crimes," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a statement, according to the Observer.

"By giving cops the discretion to issue summonses instead of requiring them to make arrests, we ensure they do not spend hours processing cases as minor as littering, and we enable officers to get back to patrolling, investigating and keeping our neighborhoods safe.”

“Being arrested and detained is a far different experience and can be a more negative experience than being issued a summons to appear in court at a future date,” Lawrence K. Marks, the state’s chief administrative judge said, adding that the shift would improve how New Yorkers experience the criminal justice system, the New York Times reported.

Under the reforms, offenders with open warrants will still be taken into custody and then to court to answer for the open warrant, but they won’t have to deal with a new criminal case – just a summons.

The bill is an effort to reform so-called "broken windows" policing that has come under scrutiny in recent times.

Critics have long argued that the NYPD’s execution of “broken windows” policing is discriminatory, as police statistically tend to target people of color. According to a New York Civil Liberties Union calculation, roughly 81 percent of the 7.3 million people hit with violations between 2001 and 2013 were black and Hispanic, the New York Daily news reported.

The broken windows theory of policing – proposed in 1982 by the sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling – holds that cracking down on petty crimes, such as unruly behavior or vandalism, creates a lawful environment that prevents worse crimes from happening.

Charges that the NYPD’s execution of “broken windows” policing is racially biased intensified when Eric Garner, a black male from Staten Island, was killed July 17, 2015 when a white police officer put him in a prohibited chokehold after he had objected to being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

New York City Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, who was one of the first big-city commissioners to implement "broken windows" when he was New York's top cop in the 1990s, and other supporters argue that the approach to policing was the reason crime rates plummeted in the city.

In the 1990s, misdemeanor arrests increased 70 percent in New York City, but violent crime rates in the city dropped dramatically, even more than in the United States as a whole, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Violent crime declined by more than 56 percent in the city, compared to about 28 percent in the nation as whole. Property crimes tumbled by about 65 percent, but fell only 26 percent nationally.”

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