A few weeks ago, when relations between the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio were at their nadir, some of Carsten Vogel’s friends had been enthusiastically bashing the NYPD on Facebook.
Vogel, who has always been a police supporter and even counts some cops among his friends, took exception to their criticism. At the time, police were in the midst of an intentional “slowdown” in arrests and ticketing in protest of the mayor’s many perceived slights toward the department, and Vogel was quick to the NYPD’s defense.
“The police in NYC are now refusing to make the mayor look good,” Vogel wrote in a thread on his Facebook page. “I get it. I don’t think the police are abandoning their jobs or responsibilities. I think they are refusing to play the game.” A few days prior, he’d gotten into what he describes as a heated argument with a friend about the same topic.
But his view of police has now been irrevocably changed. At around 4 p.m. on January 20, Vogel was listening to his headphones while waiting for an A train at the Nostrand Avenue stop when he was approached by an NYPD officer, who asked what he had in his pocket. It was a pocketknife, Vogel told him. It was clipped onto the pocket of his jeans — not open or exposed, but visible to a sharp eye.
Vogel knew his knife was legal. He had done his homework and researched New York’s laws. “I didn’t want to be carrying an illegal knife,” Vogel says, so he’d checked out the rules when he got it. The blade didn’t exceed four inches, and it wasn’t a switchblade, which are illegal in New York State. It was just a common pocketknife, with a wooden handle and a blade about two inches long: the kind that millions of Americans carry every day, often for work, and the kind stores all over New York City commonly stock on their shelves.
Vogel uses his knife for work, too. A self-employed musician, he hosts a bingo night every week at a small bar in Brooklyn, and among his duties is to set up the PA system. He always brings a knife along to cut tape and cables and the like. That’s where he was headed that day.
When Vogel handed over his knife, the cop who had stopped him went through a routine that plays out thousands of times every year in New York City. Holding Vogel’s knife, the cop raised his arm and vigorously flicked his wrist, in a practiced move. The knife snapped open and into place.
Vogel says he had never in his life tried to open his knife like that. It certainly wasn’t designed to operate that way. He was stunned.
On the next page: “It looked like a magic trick.”
“It looked like a magic trick,” Vogel says of the officer’s move. “That’s the best way I can describe it. It looked like magic.” To Vogel, it seemed obvious that this officer had done this before. “It’s something that this guy has obviously practiced a lot.”
Though virtually no law enforcement agency outside of New York City interprets the state law this way, that snap made the difference between a legal pocketknife and an illegal one. The officer holding Vogel’s knife told him that under the NYPD’s legal interpretation, he was in possession of a “gravity knife,” and he would be going to jail.
Under an arcane statute first passed in the mid-1950s, any knife that can be opened by centrifugal force can be qualified as a gravity knife. The law was never intended to outlaw the kind of knife Vogel carries — the true gravity knives originally targeted back then were far larger and more menacing. And applying the term to common folding knives is a controversial interpretation, even within the five boroughs. That reading of the law has prompted a federal lawsuit and malicious-prosecution settlements; even the state judiciary says it’s an incorrect and unjust reading of the law. Regardless, the NYPD is virtually alone among major police departments in New York State in its tough enforcement of the half-century-old law.
Last year, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance told the Voice that it was “too obvious to require elaboration” that knives can be dangerous weapons. Indeed, knives are used in a number of fatal attacks in New York City each year. But no law enforcement agency in New York City offered an explanation when we asked what makes so-called gravity knives any worse than other types of folding knife.
And while the NYPD continues to aggressively enforce the knife law, there are even some on the force who think the arrests are unfair.
When we wrote about gravity knife arrests in October, it set off a lengthy discussion on Thee Rant, a verified online forum for NYPD officers. One user, in what seems to be a prescient comment, wrote that gravity knife arrests are “Why the public hates us. [Be]cause discretion has been taken away and it’s all about numbers.” The same user noted that he had seen “rookies stalking the subways between 5-7pm to catch a construction worker wearing one so they could get a…Big CPW [criminal possession of a weapon] arrest.” Another user put it this way: “There was a time when a cop had discretion and used common sense when enforcing the law. Now we look at the public as a ‘number’ to use to keep our steady tours and make OT and we wonder why the public hates cops.”
On the next page: “Why is he getting promoted?”
After his arrest, Vogel spent a few hours in a holding cell, and received a misdemeanor charge for criminal possession of a weapon. It was his first run-in with the law. He’s looking at several court appearances (and several thousand dollars in legal fees).
If he’s like most people, he’ll have the charges dismissed after a period of time — what’s known as “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal” — or he’ll plead guilty to some lesser charge. The police who arrested him were actually apologetic, Vogel says, and explained that he would likely get off easy. And while Vogel was not happy to be arrested, he figured they were doing what they had to do.
But as he was being taken away in the back of a cruiser, he overheard a conversation that made him think differently. The officers were talking about promotions, about the kinds of arrest numbers they needed to move up in the ranks. The conversation turned to another officer they knew, and why he was getting a bump in status.
“They were saying, ‘Why is he getting promoted?’ ” Vogel recalls. “ ’He’s only got, like, two guns and a burglary and a few robberies?’ ” Vogel says he started to realize that his arrest wasn’t about safety or the kind of law enforcement that most people want from their police. “Here they are talking about promotions, and the relationship between arrest and promotions. And I’m just a pawn,” he says.
Vogel says that despite his support of the NYPD and the work its officers were asked to do, he was always wary of the department’s much-maligned “broken windows” style of policing. But he’d always assumed that officers would use discretion in situations where they could — that they wouldn’t make arrests that were unnecessary. But now, he says, “I have completely changed the tune that I’m singing. I know this police officer did this to get a promotion. They turned an ally into an enemy.”
After his ordeal, Vogel went back to Facebook. He was upset, and he was trying to warn others about the knife law. One of his friends, the same one he’d occasionally sparred with over the police, chimed in. “Aren’t you the one always arguing how great cops are and that they’re just doing their jobs?” she wrote.
“Never again,” Vogel replied.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment.
For more on how a nearly 60-year-old knife law became one of the most commonly prosecuted crimes in New York City, see also:
How a 50s-Era Knife Law Has Landed Thousands in Jail
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 29, 2015