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The New York City Police Department’s Improbable Cause

In the shadow of record-high levels of NYPD stop, question and frisk incidents and ensuing public outcry about their disproportionate toll on black and Latino New Yorkers, the department’s hailstorm of quality-of-life summonses has begun to garner scrutiny on similar grounds. The New York World investigates.

The New York World created an interactive map showing how many tickets the NYPD issued in each neighborhood in 2011. Credit:The New York World

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Lindsey Riddick of Flatbush estimates he’s been to 346 Broadway, one of the city’s half dozen summonses courts, at least six times to pay off pink slips police officers have handed to him. Trespassing, disorderly conduct, loitering — the charges kept coming. Three years ago, he spent two days in jail after a warrant was issued for his arrest when he failed to pay one of the tickets.

The 36-year-old’s experience is far from unusual. In 2011, the New York City Police Department issued more than 350,000 tickets sending recipients to court for minor infractions like these, and in the last 15 years cops have issued literally millions of these tickets.

Still, even Riddick, a substance abuse counselor in-training, was stunned on the August evening that he received a ticket for standing in front of his own home.

Riddick has lived on East 21st Street since he was born: the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and their two children is across the street from the home his parents occupied for 40 years. He was on the sidewalk in front of his building when a cop asked him for identification. Riddick says he provided an ID that showed his address, but the police officer wasn’t satisfied. He asked Riddick to prove he lived there by opening the front door with his key, and then his apartment door once inside.

“When I did, my son and my daughter came running to me,” recalled Riddick. “I said, ‘See, I live here.’ He told me then to come outside. I went back outside, my kids followed me and he said, ‘I’m giving you two summonses.’”

In the ensuing argument, a portion of which was recorded by Riddick’s brother, Michael, the cop can be heard telling Lindsey that he is not allowed to be in the front of the building. “You don’t pay for the front of the building. You don’t pay for the street. You don’t live in the street,” said the cop. According to Linsdey Riddick, the officer then threatened to put the brothers in handcuffs if they did not go inside. Riddick received two summonses for loitering and disorderly conduct. His brother got four pink slips. “That’s harassment,” a bystander can be heard saying with disdain.

“It was totally disrespectful. They violated my rights telling me to go inside the house,” said Riddick recently. “It’s frustrating that we be living in the area for over 40 years and we can’t even sit down in front of our building without cops coming and asking for ID, asking for keys, which apartment we living in…I feel that it’s about time someone does something about it.”

Riddick did. He is one of 22 plaintiffs, all African American, in a lawsuit alleging that the NYPD’s ticketing for quality-of-life offenses violated their constitutional rights. At least five of the plaintiffs were standing in front of or near their own homes when they were given tickets, and most of the summonses were eventually dismissed in court for lack of probable cause.

In the shadow of record-high levels of NYPD stop, question and frisk incidents and ensuing public outcry about their disproportionate toll on black and Latino New Yorkers, the department’s hailstorm of quality-of-life summonses has begun to garner scrutiny on similar grounds, particularly in the courts.

This spring, a federal court granted class action status to Riddick’s case, Stinson v. New York City, which seeks to end what the plaintiffs charge is an illegal quota system that forces officers to churn out tickets by the thousands – and ultimately preys on black and Hispanic city residents as targets. (The plaintiffs are represented by the same law firm behind officer Adrian Schoolcraft’s case accusing the NYPD of harassing him after he reported systematic downgrading of serious crimes.) In July, the city filed an appeal that could take up to a year to be decided.

Then in June, Brooklyn judge Noach Dear inflamed the city’s tabloids with a decision that criticized the “sniff test” the NYPD uses to determine when to issue tickets for drinking alcohol in public — and the wide racial gap in the summonses that resulted.

Noting that he could not recall ever seeing a white defendant in court on a public drinking summons, Judge Dear asked his staff to review one month of open-container cases heard in the borough. They found that just 4 percent of defendants were white. Judge Dear proceeded to recommend that the practices and policies of the NYPD be “immediately stopped if found to be discriminatory.”

Judge Dear had to conduct his unorthodox case-by-case survey because the data is otherwise unavailable. While the NYPD tracks the race of defendants who receive summonses, it does not release the information, and the city’s criminal court does not include race or other demographic information in its database.

With data provided by the Criminal Court of the City of New York, however, The New York World has analyzed summonses given by NYPD in every precinct in 2011 that then ended up on the courts’ dockets, providing a portrait of the geographic distribution of the NYPD’s pink slips across the city.

Brooklyn received the most summonses of any borough but the Bronx had the highest number per capita, followed by Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

The analysis shows the majority of summonses that end up before a judge are handed out in NYPD precincts where most of the population is non-white. Out of the 76 police precincts in New York City, 32 are at least 80 percent black, Hispanic and Asian. Those precincts account for more than three in five of all NYPD summonses.

A look at specific offenses reveals steep geographical skewing. The 67th precinct in Brooklyn, where Riddick received the summonses outside his apartment, is 99 percent black and Hispanic, and in 2011, police there issued more than 1,000 summonses for disorderly conduct. In contrast, the 78th Precinct in Park Slope, which is 67 percent white, just 16 summonses for disorderly conduct went to the criminal courts last year.

In all, 70 percent of disorderly conduct summonses that ended up in court last year were in precincts where the population is over 80 percent or more minority.

For sheer volume, the 40th Precinct in Mott Haven, a neighborhood that is 98 percent minority, led the city with with more than 13,000 pink slips. Police officers at the 40th Precinct gave over 4,000 summonses for public drinking and 1,432 people received pink slips for unreasonable noise, the highest number of any of the city’s precincts.

Citywide, 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 unreasonable noise summonses sent to a judge in 2011 came in precincts that are 70 percent or more minority. The Bronx received two in five of these summonses, even though the borough sent just 8 percent of the city’s total noise complaints to the 311 system in 2011. In fact, the borough received more noise summonses from the NYPD than it had noise complaints last year.

A couple of neighborhoods break the general pattern. The 90th Precinct in Williamsburg, 55 percent white, placed second for the total number of summonses, narrowly surpassing the 34th Precinct in Inwood and Washington Heights. It led the city in public drinking summonses, with more than 6,000 issued last year. Residents of Williamsburg also received 1,745 tickets for bicycles on sidewalks, the most of any precinct in the city.

And police at the 69th Precinct in Canarsie, which is 94 percent minority, gave out just 1,971 summonses last year, one of the lowest numbers of summonses for any precinct in Kings County.

Roughly half of all summonses are dismissed in court, Office of Court Administration statistics show. The Stinson plaintiffs claim that police officers are explicitly instructed to issue summonses regardless of whether violations have occurred, in order to “artificially create the statistical appearance of increased ‘activity.’”

“It’s remarkably consistent: one out of two summonses are dismissed,” said Jon Norinsburg, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in Stinson. “That’s why we think they’re doing it to meet their numbers. It’s inexplicable. We can’t come up with a rational explanation.”

The NYPD rarely issued summonses until the 1990s, when the Giuliani administration began a crackdown on so-called quality-of-life offenses. “Getting warrants for very minor violations was not something we would have normally done years ago,” recalled John Eterno, a former NYPD captain who is now a criminal justice professor at Molloy College. The Bloomberg administration supersized the summons machine in 2003. That year, the NYPD launched Operation Impact, which floods high-crime neighborhoods with police officers, many of them rookies.

Around the same time, evidence began to emerge suggesting that quality-of-life policing was having a disproportionate effect on black and Hispanic New Yorkers. A Criminal Justice Agency report from 2003 found that the zero-tolerance tactics of the Guliani administration resulted in older, chronic offenders and young minorities without previous arrest records entering the justice system in higher numbers.

Pushing throngs of cops into high-crime neighborhoods, then demanding they meet targets for policing activity, turned into a recipe for sticking minorities with an overlarge share of summonses, Eterno maintains. “The policy is inherently racist,” he said. “What they are doing is going into some communities and blasting them for summonses for the same activities being done in white areas, for instance smoking marijuana or drinking a beer. Those kids are now getting a record.”

Because the NYPD arrests those who fail to pay for summonses or appear in court, a single pink slip for a minor offense can effectively criminalize an otherwise law-abiding citizen by leading to warrants, hefty fines, jail time and police records. “These tickets are not inconsequential. People say they are like traffic tickets, but they are not, said Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at Queens College. “They are much more like misdemeanors-lite.”

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.

Public drinking is historically the single most common ticket: 61 percent of all these summonses were given in precincts with a population that was 80 percent non-white or more. But the second most common summonses is disorderly conduct, a charge under the city’s penal code that has at least eight definitions for offenses such as “disturbing a lawful assembly” or making “unreasonable noise.” The NYPD issued more than 79,000 pink slips for disorderly conduct last year, most in majority non-white precincts.

Some criminal defense lawyers in the city say they’ve seen disorderly conduct charges used as a kind of policing panacea — a catch-all charge officers can use against behavior they don’t like.

But Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written extensively on crime and the NYPD, says summonses are an example of proactive policing that has drastically reduced crime over the last two decades, reductions that have benefited minority neighborhoods in particular.

“The positive effects far outweigh the inconveniences of being stopped when you’re innocent and I don’t think it’s racism that’s sending cops to these neighborhoods. It’s high crime,” said Mac Donald. “People are as concerned about disorder in poor neighborhoods as they are in wealthy neighborhoods, and they have the same right to order in the streets as they do on Park Avenue.”

Reform advocates say they don’t expect changes to the alleged quota system to come from within City Hall or One Police Plaza so long as the current administration is in charge. “The common wisdom is that Bloomberg and Kelly are going to ride this out, they are not going to make any changes in quota-driven policing,” said Robert Gangi director of Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center. “They are committed to it — their legacy and accolades are all tied to this type of policing for better or for worse.”

But stop-and-frisk has already become a topic in the 2013 mayoral race, with most of the Democratic candidates vocally criticizing the NYPD for what they say is overuse of the practice in minority communities. Could summonses also become an issue when Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance or Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes run for reelection in 2013? Gangi predicted that it could, something he said he never considered possible before.

“For decades, the NYPD has gotten away with stark racially biased policing,” he said. “Communities of people of color know that’s true and have accepted it for decades. What’s interesting in what’s happening now is it is actually an issue. Any credible serious candidate for public office has to take a position.”

This article has been edited to clarify that the court data reflects NYPD cases that have been docketed for a judge in the criminal court system, not all summonses issued by the NYPD.

The New York World mapped quality of life summonses issued by the NYPD in 2011 on an interactive map. Visit the Summons City Map to see where summonses are concentrated and how neighborhoods compare.

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Tags: new york citypolicemichael bloomberg

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