News & Politics

Will Bratton's Resignation Make Any Difference in 'Broken Windows' Quotas That Discriminate Against Poor New Yorkers?

A watchdog group documents patterns of police behavior from inside sources.

NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton 2014 St. Patrick's Day Parade up Fifth Avenue, NYC
Photo Credit: Diana Robinson/Flickr CC

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton recently announced his plans to leave his post for a better paying position in the private sector. Most mainstream politicians and journalists responded to the news by directing effusive praise in the man's direction specifically for his service to NYC and generally for his decades of leadership in the law enforcement arena.

We at PROP (Police Reform Organizing Project) hold a decidedly different view of Bratton's "service" and "leadership." Over the past several years we have become all too aware of the abuses and indignities his approach to law enforcement—quota-driven "broken windows" policing—has inflicted daily on primarily poor New Yorkers of color. 

A principal way we learn about these discriminatory practices is through law enforcement officials themselves, an assistant district attorney or police officer, who reach out to inform us—often but not always on a confidential basis—about the injustices that they regularly encounter inside the system. These daily injustices fuel the deep antagonism and distrust that many people of color feel toward the police and other criminal justice professionals while instilling a dispiriting cynicism in some of those officials.

Recently an assistant district attorney contacted us and reported these harsh realities:

  • The NYPD conducts undercover buy-and-bust operations focused on marijuana only in neighborhoods of color. The department ignores white communities entirely. 

  • DAs understand that a New York City jury will never vote to convict a person of a low-level marijuana charge. So the unwritten rule among prosecutors is that if a defendant accused of an "A" misdemeanor marijuana offense refuses to plea and insists on going to trial, the DA will "bench" the case, meaning that he/she will reduce the charge to a "B" misdemeanor. Since a judge, not a jury of New Yorkers, decides the verdict in "B" misdemeanor cases, the prosecutors feel that they have some chance to win those trials.

  • "Cops lie all the time" to substantiate the charges that they bring against defendants.

  • "Very rarely do I have a case involving a white person."

  • "We harm people everyday. Everyday."

Here are accounts of NYPD activities provided by officers who object privately or publicly to the NYPD's quota system, real everyday to them, but whose existence Bratton and other Department brass have vigorously denied.

  • Under pressure to "make their numbers" each month, some officers working in a precinct with a cemetery within its borders will issue "cemetery summonses," meaning that they will enter the graveyard and write up summonses with the names of dead people that they find on the tombstones.

  • One of the first questions that an officer new to an inner-city precinct asks is, "What is the number?" Some precincts—those serving white well-to-do communities, for example—have no quotas.

  • Some officers will for most of the month ignore a neighborhood "hot spot," a place where crime such as drug-dealing or prostitution takes place in the open, and if they have not met their quota, will round up the people at those sites at the end of the month. 

  • An NYPD supervisor brought rookie officers assigned to transit duty into a room on a subway platform in an inner-city area and directed them to peek through slits in the metal door to look out for and to arrest fare evaders. One officer thinks, "What are you kidding me?' and then they do it again. 

  • An officer objected to an NYPD higher official about the practice of hiding in a room or behind a post on a subway platform. The officer wants to stand in a visible place by the turnstile—in this way, his presence will effectively deter fare evaders and he will be available to help New Yorkers if a real problem arises. "No," he's told, "we want you in the room and to hit your number."

  • An officer asked his supervisor for an unplanned day off to deal with a family emergency. "Like to help you out," the supervisor replied, "but I have to check your activity." In other words, if the officer did not fulfill his quota, his supervisor would not grant his request. 

  • To illustrate how quotas turn the idea of good policing on its head, an officer explained: "If I break up a fight between two boys and send them home, I get no credit. If I happen to help deliver a baby in an emergency, I don't get credit. But I score points if I issue a seat belt ticket or record a stop."

It is mainly because the larger public, including policymakers and reporters, mostly do not know about the troubling practices revealed by these vignettes and quotes that Bratton's announcement was greeted mainly by encomiums about his policing career. And all indications are the people in charge, including his hand-picked successor, current Chief of Department James O'Neill, want to keep it that way.

As an example, the NYPD is notoriously thorough in retaliating against whistle-blowing officers. It inflicted what is known as "transportation therapy," for instance, on the officer of the "If I break up a fight" quote. The department, with O'Neill as its "chief," assigned him to a precinct that is a two-hour commute from his home where he watches videos for eight hours a day.

While high-level police officials, led by men like Bratton and O'Neill, may think such circle-the-wagons tactics serve the NYPD's institutional interests, they serve poorly the people most in need of the government's safeguards, namely poor people, mainly persons of color.

The ugly truths of the system's ongoing abusive and discriminatory practices must be exposed and clearly viewed by our society at large before a sufficiently broad movement can come into being that effectively presses for the fundamental changes needed, ending the objectionable actions a few brave officers have revealed and creating a safe, just and inclusive environment for all our citizens.

Robert Gangi is senior policy analyst at the Urban Justice Center. He has been visiting prisons, conferring with officials and inmates, and writing reports on relevant criminal justice subjects for over 20 years. During this time he has served as the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York.

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