I Went to Summons Court and Saw "Broken-Windows" at Work: How Cops Racially Profile for Trivial Arrests

On the same day I bought a new bike off Craigslist, the NYPD wrote me a summons for riding said bike on a sidewalk in my neighborhood. I was on the sidewalk for less than 10 seconds before a cruiser let out a single burst of its siren and accelerated onto the sidewalk behind me.


I knew full well it was against the rules to ride my bike on the sidewalk. I also knew that police prowl for sidewalk bikers in my neighborhood. I’d previously done research that was included in a report on the racially disparate issuance of summonses in New York City. My neighborhood Ocean Hill, which is predominately black, was high up on the list.

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“We've been begging the cops to ticket bicyclists who violate the law,” wrote New Yorker Ed Sublette in an email to me after reading a previous article I wrote mentioning the summons. “The present traffic environment [is one where] hordes of bicyclists do any damn thing they want, [and it] has made walking down the street a daily danger… for anyone whose head doesn't spin around 360 degrees.”

Fair enough. Yet it’s impossible to deny that tickets for bike summonses in New York, along with the quota system undergirding it, creates a situation where nonwhites have more interaction with police than other types. This is on purpose. The NYPD is governed by a strategy that demands a high rate of contact between police and people in certain neighborhoods, in order to increase police’s chances of finding people with outstanding warrants for more serious offenses. This is called broken-windows policing.

“In order for police to maintain high rates of contact with suspects, they need a pretext,” says Bernard Harcourt, a scholar who has written extensively about broken-windows policing. “That reason can be marijuana in public view, minor disorder, or turnstile jumping.” Or riding a bike on a public sidewalk.

In theory, everybody should be suspect in the dragnet of broken windows. But its logic is only deployed in places where crime is mindlessly clear-cut. There may be hundreds of thieves in lower Manhattan who regularly plunder the global economy of billions of dollars, but they’re near impossible for a beat cop to identify. In contrast, a vagrant wanted for petty theft in Brooklyn is easy to happen upon, so long as police confront him when he falls asleep on the subway.

The truth is that, like high school, broken windows is all about appearances. So long as things in your neighborhood look pristine and orderly, police are more likely to let you go on your way, while concentrating their vigilance on places that look shabbier (which often means poorer).

These thoughts were spinning around in my mind after receiving my summons. So when I went to the courthouse a few weeks later, I decided to talk with people to see why they were there.

Nearly everyone in line at the courthouse on 346 Broadway was black or Latino, which made sense: A recent investigation by the New York Daily News found these two groups are six times as likely as whites to receive summonses for minor offenses.

I began taking photos, which irritated the officers standing guard nearby. One of them walked over and forced me to delete the pictures I had taken with my phone. Here’s one I managed to keep:

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I got into line and began speaking with a disabled middle-aged Latino man from Harlem who received a summons because his muffler was too noisy. An official city pamphlet explains how, and why, one can get a citation for loud exhaust:

“The Noise Code prohibits excessive sound from muffler or exhaust of vehicles operating on public streets. Unacceptable sound [from a vehicle] is defined as sound which is plainly audible from…150 ft.”

The pamphlet also notes that “while noise can often be annoying or frustrating, it is not always a violation of the City’s Noise Code. Indeed, some noise is an acceptable part of city life.” 

A black man from Brooklyn told me he was ticketed at a park. "Right at 1am, when they close, they gave me a ticket,” he said.

The history of loitering summonses in New York is ugly. At three different intervals—in 1983, 1988 and 1992—both the New York Court of Appeals and a federal court have ruled the NYPD’s issuance of such citations unconstitutional. Over and over, they have been found to repeatedly target the poor. Those rulings apparently had little effect: in 2010, Judge Shira Scheindlin with the US District Court found that the city was still meting out tickets like a hedge funder raining dollar bills at a strip club.

After speaking with a few more people—a black man who was cited for public urination and a Latino man who was cited for drinking a beer under the Manhattan bridge—I approached the window. I handed the representative my citation, which he quickly glanced over.

“October 27,” he gruffed.

I was confused. The officer who cited me said I could take care of the ticket whenever I wanted before October 27. I explained as much to man behind the glass.

“You need to come back on October 27,” he said.

OK, whatever. I turned around to see a slight man in line trying to get my attention. He stood out because he was white. He told me he was there because they had found weed in his backpack when he tried getting into a shelter for the night. 

“For one and a half grams of marijuana, I have to be here,” he said, exasperated. “It was with my painkillers in my backpack. I have spinal and sciatic nerve problems.”

The lowly possession of marijuana is one of the most frequently committed offenses resulting in citation or arrest—which, for decades, has been a financial boon to police around the country. I wasn’t surprised this man had been picked up through the shelter system, which even has its own law enforcement agency. Both the NYPD and the homeless police have worked together in recent months to conduct arrest raids on shelters that have rounded up dozens of the most desperate souls in the city, all with outstanding warrants. The police have remained tight-lipped about whether these raids targeted low-level offenders.

As we were speaking, the officer again demanded that I stop using my phone recorder. He explained that I needed written permission from a judge in order to use a recording device on the premises. I put my phone away, thanked the man in line, and walked out of the building.

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