New York

Big Crackdown on Little Crime


A sign on the blue metal door read, “You are entering a correctional facility. Display shield/ID at all times while in the facility,” and another warned, “No weapons beyond this point.” At about half past two on the afternoon of April 7, the blue door swung open, and out came Christopher D. He had been in jail for two days for possession of marijuana. He was fined $10 and released. Lunch break was over in Judge Arthur Birnbaum’s arraignment room in the Bronx Criminal Court.

Next up was Marcus L. After he’d spent two days in the slammer, his charge of “failure to comply with a sign” was ACD’d (“Adjourned in Contemplation of Dismissal”), meaning the charge vanishes if he stays out of trouble for a period of time. Henry G., for loitering on school grounds, did four days in a cell, and also received an ACD. Darren S., disorderly conduct, two days behind bars, ACD. Donny Z., fare evasion? ACD. Another guy waited three days to get a conditional discharge on “failure to comply with a lawful order.” Osvaldo A. was in for four days on an outstanding warrant for muffler cutouts; he was told to bring in a receipt for the repair work.

The courtroom is called AR2. About the size of an elementary school classroom, it sits in the basement of the courthouse on 161st Street, across the Grand Concourse from Yankee Stadium. There are three rows of benches in the windowless room; defense lawyers use the first row. Young, crisp-looking prosecutors sit off to one side. A police officer stands behind the defendants, wearing a uniform but no gun, because he regularly enters the holding cell.

Later in the afternoon, Judge Joseph J. Dawson took the bench. At one point an unlicensed hack came in cuffed. “He’s been here three days on this,” his lawyer, Corey Sokoler, said. Dawson frowned, dismissed the case, and said, “Sorry it took you so long to see a judge, sir.”

On February 24, 1998, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gave a speech titled “The Next Phase of Quality of Life: Creating a More Civil City.” The city had seen historic reductions in crime, the mayor said, “because we focused not only on murder—not only on rapes and shootings—but on so-called ‘petty offenses.’ ” The widely reported decreases in crime were proof positive, Giuliani said, of the “broken windows” theory that minor offenses foster more serious breaches of the law, so punishing little stuff stops the big stuff as well. Opponents of the approach, the mayor said, were merely “romanticizing the disorder of the past.”

The “quality of life” crusade was a hallmark of Giuliani’s mayoralty and, coupled with the reported drops in serious crimes like murder and assault, gave him a national reputation as a hard-nosed urban reformer. Official reports of serious crimes have continued to fall under Mayor Bloomberg, to great fanfare. But much more quietly, the Bloomberg administration’s quality of life crackdown has far outstripped Giuliani’s. Total quality of life summonses are up 52 percent in the last four fiscal years, and they are trending up again this year—on pace for nearly 700,000 in 2006. When it comes to trespassers, graffiti artists, and public drinkers or urinators, Bloomberg is out-Rudying Rudy.

Not every case in AR2 on April 7 was petty: There were alleged assaults, thefts, and people who drove without a current license. Nor were the defendants always inspiring characters. A parolee named Jermaine R. who told a cop his name was Darrell Smith at first denied his guilt of false impersonation. “It’s my father’s last name and my middle name,” he says. He was sent back to detention. But Edwin A. spent a night in jail for jumping the turnstiles.

Laura Saft, a public defender in Brooklyn for a quarter century, says she’s seen a definite spike in arrests for low-level offenses in the past five years. “I don’t know why. I could pose a lot of reasons. Maybe the cop didn’t like them,” she says. Or maybe the arrestee didn’t have ID on him. The arrests for trespassing in housing projects are particularly troubling. “It’s just awful,” she says. “If you’re in a building looking for a friend and he isn’t there, they arrest you.”

The NYPD insists that cops face no quotas for quality of life summonses. Back in January, however, an arbitrator in a dispute between the cops’ union and the city found that in one precinct, a commander had enforced a quota for traffic summonses. According to the arbitrator’s decision, the NYPD admitted to having “performance guidelines which included the number of summonses the supervisors expected the officers to write.” A commander might feel pressure to increase the number of summonses for the same reason commanders feel squeezed to push crime even lower: the weekly CompStat sessions in which precinct bosses are held accountable for all the numbers in their commands. If crime goes up, it’s a problem. If summonses go down, that’s not good either.

So the “broken windows” theory isn’t the only thing in play. The CompStat system developed as a way to target policies to get a better outcome (i.e., safer streets)—part of what’s sometimes called the “metrics revolution” in government. From crime stats to school test scores, today’s public sector buzzwords are all about measurement, because what can be measured can be improved. And if civil services can improve, goes the theory, then government can close the “productivity gap” between public employees and their private counterparts.

But such a system can become a slave to its own success. Large gains one year make smaller improvements later on seem lackluster, and narrow measures take on broad significance. The numbers start as a means to an end, but become the goal itself. Minor movements in the crime index are treated as reasons for celebration or worry. Crime reports become political footballs.

And the people represented by the numbers become, well, numbers. Once police officers stop people for alleged quality of life offenses, anything can happen. They may just receive summonses (as 680,000 New Yorkers did last year) and pay fines. The cops may instead arrest them and give them “desk appearance tickets,” so they get out of jail and go to court on their own. Or the police can hold them. Depending on the offense, they might be fingerprinted. They might get in fights in a crowded cell, miss work, miss custody hearings, lose their space in line for apartments. Eventually they’re brought before judges. The law says that’s supposed to happen in 24 hours, but sometimes paperwork gets lost or there’s a backlog. People can spend more time in jail waiting for their arraignment than they would if found guilty.

Luckily for some of the unfortunates who make it to Bronx AR2—the vast majority of whom were black or Latino—Birnbaum doesn’t appear to be the lock-’em-up type. While the Voice was observing his court in action, he dismissed some of the minor cases with head-spinning speed. On more serious charges, he seemed reluctant to sentence people to jail, favoring community service and treatment programs. Even when someone had failed to complete a light sentence and returned to his court, he was apt to give second and third chances, admonishing him or her quietly, “Don’t come back here.”

On April 18, Birnbaum saw several drug cases and alleged assaults. James T., for one, was charged with menacing, weapons possession, and larceny. The loot was Polly-O Mozzarella. “They’re all serious,” the judge said of the charges, “but they seem to stem from this alleged unlawful taking of the cheeses.”

That day he also saw 10 people who had been arrested or given summonses for open containers, seven alleged trespassers, and an accused turnstile jumper. One man was hauled in for selling bootleg videos and another for false impersonation. One woman couldn’t make her arraign-ment on a marijuana violation—not even a misdemeanor, a violation—because, her lawyer says, she’s dying of AIDS upstate. The case was continued. So was the case of a man busted in 1977 for public lewdness and resisting arrest but who was back in court last week on those charges.

There’s no question that quality of life crimes are—in fact—crimes, and that they’re incredibly annoying. Litterbugs suck, as do SUVs that blast bass so loud they set off car alarms at 3 a.m. It’s not pleasant to see someone tag your building, to smell piss everywhere in the park, or to watch someone rip off the MTA as you dutifully sweep your MetroCard.

The question is whether making our lives nicer—whether this effort to, as The New York Times recently dubbed it, “curb everyday annoyances and foster more civility”—is worth the price paid by Raphael V.

Raphael is about 25 and works as a messenger, or at least he did before his arrest on April 17. He said he was on his way to work that day but the MetroCard his employer gives him ran out the night before, so he borrowed his stepson’s student card. A cop arrested him for violating penal code 165.15 (3), theft of services.

Raphael saw Judge Richard Allman in Brooklyn AR1, where the proceedings one day last week mixed serious crimes (guys who allegedly punched girlfriends, ejaculated on roommates, or had 230 bags of crack) with accused trespassers, pot smokers, public drinkers, unlicensed vendors, and people who’d not really jumped turnstiles but done things like use their student MetroCard on a day off from school. They had all been arrested, most of them the night before.

Like Birnbaum in the Bronx, Allman handed out a fair share of ACDs. But he also gave a woman 60 days for shoplifting shampoo and toothpaste. Whenever somebody pleaded guilty, Allman read them a scripted series of statements and questions, including this: “When a person pleads guilty to a misdemeanor, they give up important rights. One of these is the right to a trial where the people would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard in our law, that you were guilty. It’s up to the people to prove that you’re guilty. You don’t have to prove that you’re innocent.”

Well, sometimes. After two days in jail, Raphael V. decided to end it right there, pleaded guilty, and now owes $265 in a fine and court costs.

AR1 recessed for the day at 5 p.m. Night court started 30 minutes later.

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