The Bratton Pivot: Can a “Progressive” Mayor Contain the NYPD?

Since January, when Bill Bratton came on board  to head  the NYPD, there has been a dramatic increase in arrests for jaywalking, for asking for metrocard swipes in the subway, for homelessness and even for selling churros – classic Bratton targets as we look back into his history in Los Angeles, Boston and his first stint in New York.  In the BronxCrown Heights and Spanish Harlem, the police are pulling people off buses and demanding receipts – a “show-me-your-papers” practice reminiscent of Arizona’s SB 1070 and the old Jim Crow.  

At a Columbia University event March 8 in New York City, a panel of attorneys and organizers discussed how and if policing in the era of Bill Bratton and Bill de Blasio would differ from that of the previous administration. Much of the afternoon was spent on the myriad ways that Bratton has in fact increased the intensity of racial profiling and the enforcement of low-level arrests in a racially disproportionate manner – even as he provides a public relations campaign framing these enforcement practices under the flag of collaborative, community policing. Are we being duped?

Like the T-1000 Terminator, the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk regime is in the process of remolding into a stronger, less predictable force, says Josmar Trujillo of New Yorkers Against Bratton. This is the history of institutional racism in this country, with racial profiling and mass incarceration being only the most recent iteration of the United States’  tradition of targeting the poor, as laid out recently, and perhaps most popularly, by Michelle Alexander in her best-selling book The New Jim Crow. 

Vision Zero, the city’s multi-agency approach to eliminating pedestrian fatalities is perhaps a more sophisticated example of the Bratton bait and switch. While the city also intends to construct traffic calming measures and run public education campaigns in an effort to reduce traffic accidents that lead to pedestrian death, much of the first wave of emphasis has been on increased law enforcement – first of jaywalkers and more recently of drivers and double-parked vehicles.

Thus far the NYPD has directed its double-parking enforcement in four neighborhoods: Washington HeightsHarlem, the South Bronx and the 120th precinct in Staten Island. None of these neighborhoods rate as particularly dangerous to pedestrians, (with the exception of 125th street) but they do show up on the Stop and Frisk heat map – those areas already under aggressive police enforcement and scrutiny. Why is the NYPD trying to reduce pedestrian fatalities citywide by beefing up enforcement in neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by people of color but are not particularly impacted by the traffic phenomenon Vision Zero is ostensibly attempting to address? Is this a Stop and Frisk 2.0?

“A lot of criminals are bad drivers,” George Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and an NYPD consultant said to justify increased traffic enforcement in November. More recently he told the New York Times that stopping more people for minor traffic violations is a useful pretext for additional investigative matters. Kelling often cites that 1 in 10 people arrested for jumping the subway turnstiles have an open warrant, but with 1 million outstanding warrants in a city of 8 million people, it would seem that stopping any ten people would pull up a similar number of warrants – maybe even more.  

In New York City the local political economy has shifted since the 2013 election, which ushered into city hall – both in the Mayor’s office and in the city council – a host of self-described progressives who left many across the city hopeful that Bloomberg-administration policies would soon recede into obscurity. 

The mayoral administration of Bill de Blasio uses the term “progressive” with an almost comical zeal.  The irony is perhaps most profound in references to the New York Police Department. Referring to his appointment of the Jessica Tisch as the Deputy Commissioner of Information Technology, Bratton said:

 “Jessica has a progressive point of view on the role data systems and technology should play at the NYPD."

Tisch previously served as counsel to former Commissioner Ray Kelly and thus provided legal cover for Stop and Frisk.

So what are we to make of the new Mayor Bill de Blasio – who appears to be giving full support  to a police commissioner with a long track-record of racially discriminatory policies, who has at each stop in his law enforcement career instituted policies seemingly aimed at hypercriminalizing poverty for the purpose of facilitating gentrification? 

Speaking at the Columbia University event attorneys Norman Siegel and Noha Arafa said de Blasio’s support of Bratton is cause for concern.

“I’ve thought of myself as a progressive, but if all these folks are progressive, I’m not one anymore,” Siegal said. 

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