Our City is both overpoliced and wrongly policed.

It starts with the City’s obsession with so-called “broken windows” policing. As Councilman Lancman wrote in Many Ways for Bratton to Fix Broken Windows, the broken windows theory was never intended to criminalize the low-level, nonviolent, quality-of-life offenses which purportedly signal disorder — but that is what New York City did. Every year, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, overwhelmingly black or Latino, were run through the criminal justice system for such things as being in a park after dark, riding their bike on the sidewalk, carrying an open container of alcohol (sometimes on their own stoop!), urinating in public, littering, or making excessive noise.

We’ve made progress turning back this tide of overcriminalization. A federal court struck down the excessive and unconstitutional use of “stop & frisk” — a policy that at its height needlessly detained over 600,000 completely innocent New Yorkers on our streets. And the City Council effectively decriminalized numerous “broken windows” offenses, an effort Councilman Lancman was a leader in.

But the City just won’t relent on scooping up into the criminal justice system as many black and Latino New Yorkers as it can. We are still arresting thousands of people a year, almost all nonwhite, for fare evasion in the subway, even though a civil summons, like a parking ticket, is an available alternative. And thousands more, also almost all nonwhite, are being arrested or given a criminal summons for low-level marijuana possession — even after promises from City Hall of decriminalization.

We make these arrests, and prosecutors bring these charges, almost completely indifferent to the grossly disproportionate collateral consequences to those convicted of these low-level offenses — the impact on their employment, education, and housing prospects, and, for noncitizens (including lawful permanent residents holding a Green Card), their vulnerability to deportation in the age of Donald Trump.

Here’s what we could be putting police resources toward: Protecting women from sexual assault, because a recent report from the NYC Department of Investigation found that the NYPD Special Victims Division is grossly understaffed and inadequately trained; solving murders, because a recent New York Times investigation showed how inadequate detective staffing in communities of color leave too many murderers allowed to walk the street with impunity; and protecting workers whose wages are stolen, and who are forced to endure unsafe workplaces for fear of reprisal, because wage theft is rampant and dangerous job sites kill an average of twenty workers a year in New York City.

Back to All Issues Next Issue -- Detention