The NYPD Has Become Dangerous--So Why Is A Local Paper Boosting its Leader?

The New York Daily News recently ran a front page story on NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s positive poll numbers among the city’s residents. As the article cited, Kelly’s 63% favorability rating among New Yorkers is much higher than that of any of the other possible candidates in next year’s mayoral election. On the same day as the article, the paper published an editorial urging Kelly to throw his hat in the ring.

Given its evident boosterism for the police commissioner, it is clear that the News is ignoring the highly problematic performance of the NYPD under Kelly’s stewardship.

Every day the City’s police engage in objectionable practices that waste government resources, harm people and communities, and result in more rather than less social disorder. The vast majority of arrests made and summonses issued 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 in the street. Almost none of the people involved in these activities could be considered a dangerous or predatory individual. 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 they do so 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.

NYC’s aggressive arrest-driven policing 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 400,000 arrests, most occurring in New York’s low-income communities of color. For example, although the majority of people who use marijuana are white, 86% of the individuals arrested for marijuana possession last year were black or Latino.

Common sense and social science research tell us that the extent to which arrested people see and experience the criminal justice process as fair, respectful, and consistent will determine their willingness to respect the police and to comply with the rule of law. Unfortunately, the way New York City’s justice system processes minor cases 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 emerge from the court room at least somewhat embittered and angered by their treatment, 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.

Also troubling is that the NYPD’s officers often harass or mistreat individuals from the city’s most vulnerable groups: black and brown young men stopped and frisked for no apparent reason; people in psychiatric crisis, clearly disoriented and confused, thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and locked up; LGBT persons called derogatory names, questioned rudely, inappropriately touched as they enter a local community center or gather in a group on a neighborhood street corner; sex workers arrested for simply carrying condoms or forced to have sex in return for their release; street vendors hassled, fined and arrested for violating minor rules that are arbitrarily enforced; homeless people roughed up – their belongings often destroyed – and apprehended for begging on the subway or sleeping on a park bench.

One characteristic joins the people subjugated to these harsh practices: they have little or no political standing. They are viewed as virtually powerless to effectively oppose abuse or neglect by government personnel including police officers. Especially given its tradition of tolerance and support for people who are different or just down and out, NYC should help and protect the vulnerable individuals in its midst, not employ its police force to effectively ostracize and punish them.

That the City’s Police Department engages in such aggressive, misguided measures is disturbing, but should not be completely surprising. History and experience tell us that whenever powerful law enforcement agencies, police or prisons that can forcibly deprive people of their freedom, operate without checks within government or without independent, external oversight, abuses and corruption are inevitable. That is what Attica and Abu Ghraib teach us. That is what recurring police scandals that have blighted New York’s landscape all too often teach us. And at this historical moment, the City’s Police Department is, for the most part, a revered and politically untouchable agency. Its commissioner – and putative mayoral candidate – Ray Kelly is, for better or for worse, an iconic figure. He and his policy setting team have to report or account to no one when they set arrest priorities or any other policy for the Police Department. Such unlimited power is dangerous, and should be unacceptable, to all New Yorkers, not just the black and brown residents of our inner city communities who bear the brunt of the Police Department’s harsh policies.

Mr. Kelly has resisted all calls to modify his agency’s counterproductive practices. As has, it should be noted, his boss on paper, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The only reason for informed New Yorkers, presumably including members of the Daily News’ editorial board, to support Mr. Kelly for mayor is if he promises to change the NYPD’s current harmful tactics and to establish measures for applying principles of transparency and accountability to the department’s policies and priorities.

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