Broken Windows Breaks the Bank

By Josmar Trujillo

Two years after a federal lawsuit dealt the NYPD a legal blow to its wanton stopping and frisking of Black and Latino residents, it seems the country’s largest police department still can’t adhere to the law.

Last week, New York City settled a lawsuit that challenged the NYPD criminal summonsing patterns over the course of years. Ultimately, $75 million could be paid to an untold number of plaintiffs. From 2007 to 2015, covering both the Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio regimes, at least 900,000 criminal summonses were dismissed by judges because they didn’t clear basic legal hurdles.

Cops, for example, would dish out “disorderly conduct” summonses without bothering to jot down how what exactly was disorderly about the conduct of person they gave the summons to. Disorderly conduct summonses are often the catch-all infractions cops give out in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods. So many are clearly so baseless and arbitrary that judges have no choice but to toss them.

The beauty of Stinson v City of New York is that it highlights a side of policing that doesn’t perhaps have the ugly optics of an arrest (with the handcuffs and sometimes accompanying brutality) but is no less punitive as it crushes people under financial fines, court dates and can potentially saddle them with warrants. Unlike stop and frisk encounters, where most walked away, summonsing binds you to the criminal justice system via a pink sheet of paper.

Not everyone can fight summonses. Even less have the opportunity to file lawsuits on their own. The Stinson settlement may help. Part of the agreement is that efforts are made to find people who may eligible to receive compensation. With nearly a million shit summonses, chances are thousands of New Yorkers have been victims.

So what fueled the summons frenzy? A big part of the problem was quality of life policing. In fact, some have called this the Broken Windows lawsuit. Since not every cop might enjoy ticketing a homeless person or handing a $100 fine to a poor person who jumped a turnstile, the mass summonsing was likely pushed through a widely-acknowledged quota system, which police officials continues to deny exist—despite countless stories to the contrary from retired and current cops.

According to police mouthpiece J. Peter Donald, the NYPD has never used a quota system. That’s been the company line for years, from Ray Kelly to Bill Bratton and current NYPD head honcho Jimmy O’Neill. Kelly likely even hid emails in a Hillary Clinton-esque move to keep lawyers from finding evidence of quotas, which are very much illegal.

Baseless, racist and quota-driven criminal summonsing should also make everyone take pause on the hair-brained scheme of some city council members, like Rory Lancman of Queens, to ‘reform’ Broken Windows policing by politely encouraging the NYPD to hand out more civil summonses for quality-of-life infractions instead. If police officers, ostensibly working under quotas, are the ones doing the summonsing, the result will be baseless, racist and quota driven civil summonses, which often mean higher fines and which are harder to fight in court (meaning a Stinson-like challenge probably could never happen).

The worse part of the whole summons escapade is probably the de Blasio administration’s reaction. The city’s top lawyer, Zachary Carter, claims the Stinson settlement is indicative of “remarkable progress” by the police department. In other words, for Carter, city taxpayers having to shell out millions to settle shoddy, racist police work is not a moment to reflect or revise policy, but rather to pat themselves on the back.

That sort of arrogance is not only remarkable but also representative of a larger cultural problem within the the administration and the police department. The city law department provides the spin while the NYPD denies the facts. But maybe New York wouldn’t be New York without the police department living in some alternate reality, with their alternative facts.


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