The city that pioneered “broken windows” policing is retooling its longtime strategy of trying to reduce serious crime by cracking down on people who commit minor offenses, like public drinking and littering.
With crime at historic lows, New York City leaders have rolled out a series of proposals aimed at unclogging courts and jails and undoing damage done to poor, minority neighborhoods by generations of mass incarceration.
Change can’t come fast enough for people like Manhattan resident Jamal Williams.
The 28-year-old was cited by the police two years ago for spitting on the ground outside his East Harlem public housing building. The offense was as minor as they come, but when he forgot to show up for his court date, he became a wanted man.
Williams was hauled off to jail last spring when an officer patrolling the subway stopped him for passing between cars, checked his ID and saw there was a warrant for his arrest.
“I didn’t even remember it,” Williams said of the initial spitting incident. “And they kept me locked up for the whole day, waiting and waiting” to see a judge.
It isn’t certain yet how much things will change for borderline lawbreakers, but the idea that there are too many people in jail for piddling offenses is having a moment.
Last week, the mayor, police commissioner and the Manhattan district attorney said people who commit certain low-level infractions in the borough, like urinating in public, won’t be arrested. Instead, they will get a summons to appear in court, saving them from at least a day in jail.
The announcement follows a package of bills introduced by city lawmakers in January that would steer many minor offenders to civil, rather than criminal, courts.
There has been talk about developing an amnesty program for the huge number of New Yorkers like Williams who wind up in jail -- sometimes for extended periods -- when they miss court appearances or can’t post small amounts of bail because of poverty.
The city has 1.2 million such arrest warrants outstanding, many for failing to appear in court for infractions ranging from disorderly conduct to taking up two seats on the subway to riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
Police Commissioner William Bratton insists the city isn’t abandoning the broken windows theory, which holds that neglecting minor blights, like cracked glass or turnstile jumping, leads to a culture of decay and criminality.
But he says that with crime low, policing tactics should reflect the fact that New York isn’t the sick “patient” it was in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“Why keep arresting, why keep summonsing when the patient doesn’t require that?” Bratton said.
There have been calls for a citywide fund to help poor defendants on very minor charges post bail.
Other, more ambitious proposals would require state legislators to take action. They include raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 and allowing judges to consider whether a person is truly dangerous when setting bail, something now done routinely in many states, but not in New York.
Statistics show the number of people put in handcuffs in recent years has declined.
Police made 54,000 fewer arrests in 2015 than they did in 2013. The number of people arrested for possession of very small amounts of marijuana has dropped by two-thirds since 2011. Because of public protests, and lawsuits, the police department has curtailed a once-widespread practice of stopping and searching people in the street.
That’s welcome news to advocates who note that such policing practices disproportionately affected black and Latino residents, who also represent the majority of jail inmates.
But critics say the softer touch will threaten public safety.
“The message that they’re sending is it’s OK to litter, it’s OK to urinate in public and all that’ll happen is you’ll have to pay a ticket. It’s lunacy,” said Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. “What’s shocking is Commissioner Bratton flip flopping. He spent his past two decades on preaching about broken windows ... It doesn’t make sense.”
Some advocates argue the reforms don’t go far enough, noting that officers have long had the discretion to warn people or issue a summons for minor crimes but often arrest to prove productivity on the street.
“What we really need is a shift from relying on policing and law enforcement as a solution to minor problems or issues that can be resolved in other ways,” said Fahd Ahmed of Communities United for Police Reform.