Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jul 2014
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Author: Joseph Goldstein


Even as violent crime has receded across New York City, arrests are
near historic highs, driven by an increasingly controversial
imperative that no offense is too minor for police officers to pursue.

Now, the death of a Staten Island man after officers tried to arrest
him for peddling cigarettes is intensifying scrutiny of the Police
Department's unflagging push to arrest people over the most minor offenses.

The Police Department reported making 394,539 arrests last year. That
is tens of thousands more arrests than in 1995, when there were three
times as many murders in the city and the department was in its early
embrace of the "broken windows" strategy, which sees enforcement of
low-level offenses as effective at preventing more serious crime.

William J. Bratton, the man who brought "broken windows" policing to
New York in the 1990s, is once again the city's police commissioner,
appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and is carrying on the department's
focus on so-called quality of life crimes that he considers the seeds
of more serious disorder.

Eric Garner, 43, was a target of those efforts.

Suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes on the sidewalk on Staten
Island, Mr. Garner was approached by the police last week, in a
confrontation that was captured on video recorded by bystanders.

When officers moved in to arrest Mr. Garner, one of them wrapped an
arm around his neck in what Mr. Bratton said appeared to be a
chokehold - a tactic banned by the Police Department. After
complaining that he could not breathe, Mr. Garner appeared to slip
into unconsciousness and was pronounced dead a short time later at a

While the apparent chokehold fueled much of the initial public outcry,
community leaders have begun asking whether focusing police officers
so intently on such petty offenses makes sense in a city that is far
different and far safer than the one Mr. Bratton left in the mid-1990s.

"I think we need to look at whether we still need these arrests," said
Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former captain in
the Police Department.

"This is a good moment," he said, "to re-evaluate what comes after
'broken windows,' now that the windows are no longer broken."

And with the number of stop-and-frisk encounters down sharply, the
community groups that mobilized against those street stops are turning
their attention to the number of low-level arrests, saying they will
push for changes.

"It's the new stop-and-frisk," Robert Gangi, director of the Police
Reform Organizing Project, said of the low-level arrests, which, he
added, were eclipsed in recent years by the public debate over the
stop-and-frisk tactic.

The long-term increase in overall arrests reflects the convergence of
two striking trends. Felony arrests have dropped off significantly, as
violent crime has plummeted. But the soaring number of arrests for
misdemeanors and noncriminal violations has more than made up for the

In 1995, for each felony arrest, the police were making 1.3 arrests
for offenses in the broadest category of misdemeanors; by 2013, the
ratio had grown to 2.5 misdemeanor arrests for each felony, according
to data from the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Mr. de Blasio, whose campaign last year focused heavily against
stopping and frisking, finds himself championing key aspects of the
police strategies of his immediate predecessors - Mayors Rudolph W.
Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg.

During their administrations, the city saw enormous strides in public
safety, but the Police Department was faulted for heavy-handed tactics.

In July, the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson,
announced he would stop prosecuting some marijuana arrests, which have
soared in number in the last decade, at times making up more than 10
percent of overall arrests by the police.

But the de Blasio administration pushed back, saying the police would
not change their arrest practices when it came to marijuana.

After Mr. Garner's death, Mr. de Blasio said that if citizens were
complaining about the sale of cigarettes, the police were right to
enforce the law. "If police officers are asked to enforce the law
because there's a community concern, we require that - we expect that
of them," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Bratton said that Mr. Garner's death would result in "no
change in that focus" of having officers confront low-level
rule-breaking. "It's a key part of what we're doing," he said, adding
that disorderly behavior proliferated quickly unless confronted by the

But Mr. Bratton also seemed to signal to his officers that he was open
to their handling rule-breaking in less forceful ways. He stressed
that he wanted officers to understand he did not expect arrests where
an "an admonition - 'move along, you can't do that' " - would have
sufficed. He said officers needed to "understand they are given great
powers of discretion and I'm not measuring success by numbers of arrests."

While the Police Department's own statistics recorded slightly fewer
than 400,000 arrests last year, the data on arrests is imperfect.
Numbers reported to the City Council as well as to the state do not
include several categories of arrests. Additionally, the Police
Department includes arrests made by other smaller police agencies and
occasionally assigns multiple arrest numbers to people apprehended for
a spree of crimes, such as a string of burglaries.

Still, data from the city's criminal courts charts the increase in
arrests over the last two decades and confirms the trajectory of the
Police Department's statistics.

In 2013, the city's courts arraigned some 365,752 people who had been
arrested, which undercounts the total number of arrests because it
does not include, for example, cases that are immediately dismissed by

Randy Mastro, a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration and now a
lawyer in private practice, said in an interview that "in one sense
it's a surprising statistic that the arrest rates have grown" to their
current levels. But he said that it would be a mistake to roll back
police enforcement: "The policy of stricter enforcement in making
arrests across the board for what some might consider minor offenses
has served this city well, and is one of the many reasons we now have
such a low murder rate."

Over the years, the number of people pulled into the criminal justice
system has soared in New York City. In 1994, when the Police
Department adopted the 'broken windows' strategy, the police arrested
124,475 individuals for the broadest category of misdemeanors, some
more than once.

In 2013, officers arrested 162,808 people for misdemeanors, some more
than once.

All told, since 1994, the police in New York City have arrested more
than 1.3 million people who had never been arrested for a penal-law
crime, according to data from the state's Criminal Justice Services,
although some double-counting is possible because of the way arrestees
are tracked.

Marijuana arrests have driven the increase over the last decade, with
trespassing arrests also a leading factor. Some of those who ended up
in handcuffs for trespassing said they were visiting friends or
relatives, and a federal judge found the police were
unconstitutionally stopping people.

Some officers have said they were under pressure from commanders to
raise their arrest numbers, which supervisors use to gauge

But as the city grew safer, the police also pursued ever lower
violations, such as having a foot on a subway seat. Years after
cracking down on turnstile jumpers, the police started a push to
arrest people who stood outside the turnstile, asking others for a
swipe of their MetroCard.

"There is no logic to the explosion of arrest activity," said
Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat whose district
includes Brownsville and East New York, where the police have focused

J. David Goodman contributed reporting.
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