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Tyranny in NYC: The NYPD's Wasteful, Ineffective, Illegal, and Unjust Targeting of Blacks and Latinos

Mayor Bloomberg's critics are silent as the NYPD breaks the law to attack blacks and Latinos with harmful, low-level arrests for marijuana.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been the focus of much public criticism in recent months. Elected officials and editorial writers have expressed concern and outrage over matters ranging from the city’s response to snow storms to the appointment of Cathie Black as the city’s Education Chancellor to the payroll scandal at the city’s Department of Employment. A policy area where the mayor has mainly escaped criticism and where it is long overdue is a truly objectionable practice of the Police Department, namely our city’s wasteful, ineffective, unjust, illegal and starkly racially biased arrest methods.


The vast majority of arrests in New York City are for low-level offenses, such as misdemeanors like possessing a small amount of marijuana or violations like selling umbrellas or flowers on the street without a license. By any criteria, almost none of these activities could be considered dangerous or predatory. At worst, most city residents would view them as public nuisances.

Police officers and other criminal justice personnel -- judges, court officers, district attorneys, public defenders and correction officers -- spend hours every day, if not their whole workday, processing these cases. And these law enforcement officials are preoccupied with these seemingly insignificant cases day after day, week after week, month after month and so on.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, just one category of arrests -- for possessing, not selling, small amounts of marijuana -- costs New York City $75 million per year.


The aggressive arrest-driven policing applied in New York City aimed at minor offenses has effectively caught up hundreds of thousands, perhaps actually millions, of individuals in the criminal justice net in recent years. Last year, for example, the city’s police made over 370,000 arrests. Most of these arrests occurred in New York’s low-income communities of color -- for example, although the majority of people who use marijuana are white, 86 percent of the individuals arrested for marijuana possession last year were black or Latino.

Common sense tells us, as does more and more social science research into the perceptions of “procedural justice,” that the extent to which arrested people see and experience the criminal justice process as fair, respectful, consistent and impartial will determine their willingness in the future to respect the police and to comply with the rule of law. Unfortunately, the way New York City’s justice system processes cases involving minor offenses from arrest to conviction bears few if any of the hallmarks essential to people’s positive perception of procedural fairness.

In other words, most people caught up in this system will emerge from the court room at least somewhat embittered and angered by their treatment and with less regard for law enforcement personnel and procedures and with reduced willingness to comply with authority. Aggressive arrest-driven policing, while aimed at enhancing community safety and well being, actually contributes to the undermining of respect for social norms that is the building block for creating a stable and crime-free community.


Many individuals subjected to aggressive arrest-driven police practices and subsequently charged with marijuana possession are coming forward with testimony that their arresting officers engaged in illegal search and seizure methods. According to these accounts heard over and over from people in different communities and who do not know each other, police often stop individuals, usually young black or brown men, for no apparent reason -- the persons involved are not engaged in what could be considered furtive or suspicious activity; they may have been walking to or from their school or workplace or been on a personal errand.

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