The title of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities was a major theme in New York City’s 2013 elections. And civil rights advocates and drug policy reformers have used its opening lines to describe the city’s current situation. UC Berkeley Professor Frank Zimring describes New York as The City That Became Safe, in the title of his widely publicized Oxford University Press book, and he asserts in his subtitle that New York has valuable Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control. But ample research reports, judicial decisions, public opinion polls and media accounts document a more mixed picture of the 12 years of the Bloomberg-Kelly administration.
Under their administration, the city was “safe” for corporate investors and real estate developers to do business in New York, and for some New Yorkers to use public streets without fear of criminals, police interference or signs of “disorder” – “the best of times.” But for other New Yorkers, this “safer” city has meant residential dislocation (i.e. gentrification), racial and economic profiling by police, disruption of religious practice and schools where young people are treated like criminals – “the worst of times.”
The police department’s own data show clearly that for an overwhelming majority of the millions of New Yorkers who have been watched or stopped over the last decade, nearly 90% of whom are people of color, there is no evidence that they are engaged in criminal behavior. Comparatively few arrests occur as a result of police stops, and when they do, they are typically the result of private possession of small amounts of marijuana – conduct that was decriminalized in the 1970s.
Less than two-tenths of a percent of stops turn up a gun. Less than 2% of stops turn up other weapons. A recent report of by the New York State Attorney General’s Office examined 2.4 million documented stops that occurred between 2009 and 2012 and the 150,000 arrests that grew out of those stops. Of these arrests, only about 0.10% resulted in a conviction for a violent crime.
Documented stops are those that are recorded on a police department form called the UF-250 – but an untold number of stops take place without being recorded. So the actual scope of the problem is even worse than that revealed by police data.
When grassroots and advocacy groups have complained about oppressive treatment of the poor and people of color, or blanket surveillance of Muslim communities, the billionaire mayor and his entrenched police commissioner essentially told critics to be quiet, and tried to paint this dissent as a threat to public safety. They answered data-based critiques with broad assertions that their policies “save lives,” “target criminals,” “get guns off the streets” and “keep the city safe from terrorism.” In this paternalistic discourse, authority is always right, and its critics are always wrong.
Safe for Whom?
Evidence suggests that in their zeal to portray New York as “safe” or “safer” than other cities, police managers adjust the recording of reported crimes, a practice documented by John Eterno of Molloy College, formerly of the NYPD, and Eli Silverman, professor emeritus at John Jay, in their 2012 book The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation. If these adjustments cease once Ray Kelly is no longer commissioner, crime in the city may appear to rise even if the actual level of crime does not.
The appearance of a crime increase will also occur if the incoming commissioner successfully repairs the relationship between the police department and communities of color, and black and Latino victims begin to fully report the crimes committed against them. A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice notes that young males of color who are repeatedly stopped by police are unlikely to report their own victimization by crime, even for serious offenses. Without this information, the City’s current reporting of crime is inaccurate, and underplays the problems faced by some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.
If such problems in the city’s crime data are corrected, the well-orchestrated appearance of a “safer” city may begin to unravel without any real change in criminal behavior. The public-relations consequences for the new administration would be severe.
Under the outgoing administration, the image of a safe New York, whether real or imagined, has been linked to policies that treat entire communities as suspect. Discourse on the causes and prevention of crime is oversimplified and overtly racialized. By claiming that blacks and Latinos “are under-stopped” in comparison to reports of them as crime suspects; and, that “we go where the criminals are,” the mayor and police commissioner expressed, and attempted to validate, the kind of overt racial oppression adamantly fought against during the Civil Rights era. Their net of criminal suspicion is cast so wide that it includes most non-whites, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-affluent persons appearing on the public streets, under the guise of keeping the city safe and secure for “everyone.”
In reality, among the roughly 2.2 million non-Hispanic blacks in NYC, 2012 police data reveal that a black suspect or arrestee was identified in just over 19,000 reported offenses designated as violent crimes. Comparing stop data to crime data, blacks were 15 times more likely to be stopped than they were to be reported as a suspect in any violent crime category; and nearly 2,000 times more likely to be stopped than be reported as a suspect in a homicide. These comparisons are based on a total of nearly 300,000 stops in the same period, during which 88% of those stopped were not arrested or issued a summons. In fact, of the 2,398 black firearm arrestees, 517 shootings suspects and 154 suspects in homicides during 2012, nearly none were apprehended as the result of a stop and frisk; and combined, these numbers for black “suspects” represent less than 0.13% of NYC’s black population.
By focusing on the “usual suspects” in its discourse about crime and terrorism, the outgoing administration has normalized a social order once recognized as illegal, immoral and unethical. It is a social order that the new administration must work hard to reverse. But naturally, no one wants to be seen as the leader(s) who made New York City “unsafe again.”
Tabloid editorials and status-quo politicians continue to predict that refusing to target entire communities, and instead limiting police action to cases of individualized reasonable suspicion and actual probable cause, will open the floodgates to danger.
The incoming administration must have the fortitude and patience to implement reforms in the face of some well-resourced opposition. Ending police enforcement practices with an unwarranted disparate impact on multiple vulnerable groups is essential to stemming the tide of lawsuits, payouts, protests, negative publicity and destabilizing disagreement that robs New Yorkers of their humanity and pits them against each other in ways that are potentially crime-generating and otherwise counterproductive.
The new administration must be strong enough to resist the lure of oversimplified strategies touted as the “key” to producing and maintaining public safety. It must be able to see crime as more a symptom of what ails the city than a primary cause. Most of all, the new administration must be willing to engage with all New York communities to produce truly innovative approaches that actually make the city safer and more secure for all.
To better understand where policing went wrong, the NYPD needs to engage with academic researchers at CUNY and elsewhere to survey police managers, supervisors and patrol officers to gather the information necessary to design and implement new and reformed training. Thoughtful decisions based on accurate information can ensure better police-community relations, crime prevention and detection.
An immediate step in the process of reform is to drop the City’s appeal of the Floyd and Ligon decisions on stop-and-frisk, and its suit against the anti-profiling provision of the Community Safety Act.
Age of Transparency
To improve accountability and transparency between the department and the public, the new commissioner can mandate that during all police-initiated encounters with the public, officers must identify themselves verbally and through a contact card providing their names, badge numbers and a number to call to register complaints or issue compliments about the encounter. Online options should also be made available. Research shows that the removal of officer anonymity improves the quality of these interactions and reduces the number of complaints.
Though not without some privacy concerns, use of body-worn cameras will allow supervisors to better monitor the behavior of officers on the street and design or redesign training to fit legal, professional and community concerns.
Though police unions have joined the city in opposing the proposed reforms, some of their own members have been brave enough to go on record as opponents of existing policing practices. In the political battles that lie ahead, we must all speak out and encourage the new administration to be as brave and forthright as those “whistle blowers,” who have had the courage to tell the truth and take a stand to correct policing that has gone terribly wrong.
Delores Jones-Brown is a professor at John Jay College, founding director of its Center on Race, Crime and Justice and a former assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County, New Jersey.