The end of 2014 in New York City has felt like the end of days. The last week of the year was marked by strained relations between Mayor Bill DeBlasio and the rank and file of the NYPD following the shooting of two officers: Rafael Ramos and Wejian Liu, shootings blamed by President of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, on the Mayor’s response to the Eric Garner protests.
In the wake of this turmoil, the New York Post reported that the police had stopped policing. In the week starting Dec. 22, arrests were down 66 percent compared to the same week in 2013. According to the Post, citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587. Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination fell 94 percent—from 4,831 to 300. And drug arrests dropped by 84 percent, from 382 to 63.
The numbers reinforce another article in the Post, in which cops confessed to “turning a blind eye” to minor crimes. An NYPD supervisor told the Post, “My guys are writing almost no summonses, and probably only making arrests when they have to—like when a store catches a shoplifter.” In the later article, the Post quotes the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which warned its members to put their safety first and not make arrests “unless absolutely necessary.”
On Wednesday afternoon in the predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, many had noticed the police slowdown. A car mechanic who goes by the name “Big Perm” said he noticed a change in the neighborhood. “They just walk around, they ride in their patrol cars, and they just pass by,” he said. He does not approve of the police slow down, like most people I spoke to. Big Perm worries that the lack of policing the “small fry” will lead to more crimes by “big fry.” In the meantime, he is keeping his children at home.
A young man who wouldn’t give his name also noticed the police slowdown over the past week in a neighborhood he says is usually teeming with police activity. “I see the streets are different, they have a different look to them. I’m not seeing the police like I usually see them,” he said. But he said the streets are calmer, too. “More police makes it crazy. If they see me and my friend having a conversation, and my cousin comes down the street, it’s a problem. I just try to keep out their way most of the time.”
But many I spoke to felt that even when the police were making arrests, they were frequently focused on the wrong issues. As Matt Ford notes astutely in The Atlantic, “the police union’s phrasing—officers shouldn’t make arrests ‘unless absolutely necessary’—begs the question: How many unnecessary arrests was the NYPD making before now?” Ford suggests that the slowdown “challenges the fundamental tenets of broken-windows policing,” Commissioner Bill Bratton’s method for prosecuting smaller “quality of life” misdemeanors to reduce more serious crime. “If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven’t they done it before?” Ford asks.
The distinction between necessary arrests and “minor crimes” that the cops are making echoes another distinction that comes up in research about police in minority neighborhoods. The two major complaints minority communities have against the police seem at first glance paradoxical. On the one hand, residents of these neighborhoods complain of over-policing. But they also complain of non-responsiveness. “While many black citizens have complained about harsh or brutal police behavior, they also have expressed intense criticism of a lack of police protection,” writes USC Professor Harlan Hahn in Ghetto Assessments of Police Protection and Authority. This in turn leads to a lack of trust in the police. “The perception that one’s community is besieged by the police further decreases police legitimacy, as can the perception that the police are ignoring problems in minority neighborhoods,” concludes University of South Carolina Law Professor Seth Stoughton in another article.
The distinction between over-policing and non-responsiveness was alive and well in Bed-Stuy. Abraham, a yellow cab driver and student, feels that blacks are targeted unfairly by the police. And what’s more, the police are injudicious in their choice of which crimes to pay attention to. “Sometimes you’ll see two police officers on the corner here, and a block away you’ll hear a gunshot, and they’re not really doing anything,” he said. “There’s a lot of drug dealing around, there’s a lot of guns around, and all of that is just increasing, and a lot of them are focusing on traffic violations, which don’t really have an impact on crime.”
Maurice, a 22-year-old father, says the cops planted weed on him after he was arrested once. Another day he was stopped five separate times by the cops. He thinks only good can come from fewer arrests. When he has called the police in the past, they have not responded, or responded “mad late.”
“As far as policing, I don’t see them around anyway,” said Diane, a retiree, who disapproved of the police reducing their policing. And, she added, “In other neighborhoods, I feel they are a little harsh.”
Antoine, a 40-year-old DJ who works at the airport, says he fears for his children if the police stop doing their jobs. But when asked if he believes the police are keeping his kids safe, he said, “Yeah and no. Yeah because when a situation happens and you call them, you need the police sometimes.” But he says the police come rarely when they are called. “In my neighborhood where I am from in the projects, they usually just be around all day, messing with people, telling you you can’t stand in front of the building. They’re just looking for problems.” There are a few good ones, Antoine says, but he complained bitterly of a lack of responsiveness. “There’s shootings all the time, and they still don’t come.” Antoine himself had recently been arrested on a six-year-old warrant for a dime bag of weed.
“They know there are drug spots,” said Wanda Williams, who was out for a walk with her son. “Do they take care of it? No. They basically turn their back to that, but then, say I jay walk, they will grab me and give me a ticket for jay-walking.” Does that mean a reduction in policing would be a good thing? “Somewhat,” Williams said.
Like many I spoke to, Williams seemed to desire a reorientation of policing, rather than just a reduction.
But a bodega owner named Ali disagreed. He said the police were good at their jobs, and were still policing every day. “Without police it’s fucked up,” Ali said.
As if to prove his point, three squad cars were parked outside an Applebee’s, while on the other side of the street, a traffic cop was busy writing parking tickets.
Outside Ali’s bodega, a homeless man sat happily puffing away on a joint.