Mayor Bill de Blasio's vision of New York as a city that is "safe and fair" is within reach. With welcomed reforms to stop and frisk, new leadership at the Civil Complaint Review Board, improved training and risk assessment of NYPD officers, and neighborhood-based efforts to win back the trust of communities of color, he is on the right track.
But this progressive agenda will quickly be derailed, if the Mayor allows overly aggressive quality of life arrest tactics in poor communities of color to substitute for stop and frisk. And that is precisely what's happening. As felony arrests have gone down over the past several years, the NYPD escalated misdemeanor arrests. And today, with the new focus on broken windows enforcement, we are seeing increasing arrests on even more minor quality of life charges.
The theory of broken windows makes all the sense in the world if it is about helping to heal vulnerable communities through a range of interventions for minor misbehaviors and nuisances, including referrals for assistance, warnings, summonses, cooling-off opportunities, and other tactics that do not result in arrest. Arrest should be the alternative of last resort.
Like it or not, this broken windows arrest strategy is helping perpetuate what candidate de Blasio called a "tale of two cities," The NYPD is disproportionately targeting communities of color, and in its wake, sweeping up people with mental illness who now comprise more than 40 percent of the Rikers Island population.
These arrests are for minor charges, you say. No one is going to do hard time for panhandling. How much damage can this really do? When an individual is arrested for a minor crime, the consequences are not minor at all.
The act of arrest in and of itself damages lives, breaks families apart, and fractures already disenfranchised communities. Loved ones and community members -- especially children -- are traumatized by seeing a parent or respected adult arrested. The arrest itself can cause injury, even death.
In jail, being subjected to the indignity of a strip-search, being thrown in a cell or being locked in a violent environment, creates physical risk and psychological trauma, especially for the most vulnerable including the mentally ill.
And the damage done by an arrest and conviction can haunt a person for years after release, often for life. At the Fortune Society, we see 4,500 people annually looking to rebuild their lives after incarceration.
A criminal record -- even for minor offenses -- will make it difficult to get a job and certain licenses. A criminal record may close the doors to higher education. A criminal record will allow landlords to refuse to rent to a person, will often render a person ineligible for public housing in New York City and may even cause the family to be evicted. A criminal record may also disqualify an individual from serving in the military.
It is not acceptable to condemn mass numbers of our city's underserved black and Latino residents to a future with even less opportunity than they have already.
Stop and frisk built a poisonous reservoir of rage and distrust between young men of color and police officers. Broken windows, administered through over-reliance on arrest, will simply shift the damage to a broader swath of residents in the same handful of communities.
But, it's not too late for the de Blasio administration to reverse this trend.
The Mayor entered office with a vision of a city that valued and nurtured all New Yorkers. Part of that vision should include a police department in which members of all communities feel safe in turning to the police for assistance with the expectation that they will be treated with value and respect.
If a white person of means in an affluent community receives a warning or a summons or a referral for help for an unwanted minor misbehavior, a person of color in a poor community should be dealt with no more harshly.
At a recent press conference, Mayor de Blasio said, "Under a respectful but still very effective approach to policing, officer discretion means attempting to maximize dialogue, attempting to resolve situations as effectively as possible, that doesn't always require arrests."
Let's hope he means it, and that from the top down, the men and women of the New York City Police Department take his words seriously.
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