Propelled to office in large part by a commercial that critiqued the NYPD, Mayor Bill de Blasio has overseen big changes in policing policy, from moving to settle a lawsuit over stop-and-frisk to shutting down a police unit that spied on Muslims.
But when it comes to the bread-and-butter of law enforcement in New York City—arrests for misdemeanor crimes like trespassing and marijuana possession—a more complex picture emerges. It was on display in the arraignment part of Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday morning.
Among the 70 cases heard that morning, 22 were for possession of marijuana. Twelve were for disorderly conduct. Another 12 were for unlicensed driving.
Over the first three months of the de Blasio administration, the total number of misdemeanor arrests in the city barely budged compared with the same period last year, dropping by less than two-tenths of a percentage point to 57,813, according to data supplied to City Limits by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Low profile, high numbers
Headlines and speeches obsess with the seven felony crimes (murder, assault, rape, robbery, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft) that comprise the NYPD’s official crime statistics.
But arrests for misdemeanors—crimes for which the punishment cannot exceed one year in jail—are what cops and courts in the city spend much of their time addressing.
During 2013, for instance, the NYPD made more than three times as many misdemeanor arrests as it did felony busts.
It’s no wonder, then, that misdemeanor enforcement figures prominently in critiques of police policy. Under Mayor Giuliani, “quality of life” enforcement drew equal cheers and jeers when it meant more arrests for drinking in public and other annoyance crimes.
In the Bloomberg days, arrests for trespassing spurred a lawsuit over the NYPD “clean halls” program, and coverage by City Limits and others exposed a police tactic that duped people into committing arrestable offenses for low-level marijuana possession. Then-Commissioner Ray Kelly ultimately forbade the tactic.
Shifting patterns of enforcement
So far under the new mayor, there’ve been sharp decreases in busts for some crimes. Compared to the first quarter of last year, the NYPD under de Blasio arrested 523 fewer people for “theft of services,” the charge applied to turnstile jumpers. The number of people charged with fifth-degree criminal sale of marijuana was cut in half.
But these drops were offset by boosts in other crimes. Some matched mayoral priorities. Arrests for driving while intoxicated, for instance, were 15 percent higher this year, likely a reflection of the mayor’s Vision Zero traffic safety initiative.
Biggest raw-number decreases in arrests in 2014
Click here to see biggest percentage decreases
Biggest raw-number increases in arrests in 2014
Click here to see biggest percentage increases
There were also major increases under de Blasio in the number of busts for crimes like “inciting to riot” (18 in the first quarter of 2014, a doubling of the previous year), “offer to file a false instrument” (up 83 percent to 27 so far this year) and “fraudulent accosting,” which jumped 73 percent to 64 arrests in the first part of this year.
More important are the crimes for which thousands are arrested, like criminal trespassing, a charge associated with the aggressive NYPD tactics of the Bloomberg era. Compared to this period last year, there was a 28 percent hike in arrests for criminal trespassing under de Blasio—meaning 771 more arrests.
That’s troubling to advocates who believe trespassing arrests often sweep up innocent people who happen to be caught without ID, or visiting a friend’s building. Other critics suspect that trespassing is used as a catch-all to categorize arrests that really ought to be felonies and count against the high-profile NYPD index crime statistics.
Sharks vs. dolphins
Arrests for the lowest-level marijuana possession misdemeanor fell by 8 percent. But that still meant more than 7,000 arrests—78 every day—for the crime of having pot in public. Research indicates that arrests for marijuana possession display a profound racial skew.
“[The] small decrease in criminal possession of marijuana 5th [degree] is a concern. We were hoping to see more of a decrease there under Commissioner Bratton,” said scholars John Eterno—a former NYPD captain who teachers at Molloy College—and Eli Silverman of John Jay College in an email. “This has been a concern since the mid-1990’s. As Jack Maple (Commissioner Bratton’s former right hand man – now deceased) felt, you need to separate the sharks from the dolphins.”
City Hall did not reply to a request for comment on the numbers, which do not include arrests for violations like disorderly conduct. They also do not include offenses for which desk appearance tickets or summonses were used instead of arrests, which figure prominently in a report issued this week by the Police Reform Organizing Project, which called for broad reforms to how the NYPD enforces laws against street vendors, the homeless and others.And some misdemeanors might elude the statistics because only the top charge for which someone is arrested is tallied.
The three months covered by the arrest statistics comprise a short period by which to judge the de Blasio approach to policing. But as early as mid-March the mayor was trumpeting a drop in crime.
More recently, media reports have highlighted an increase in shootings and several City Council members have concluded that 1,000 more cops is what the city needs to turn back the increase in violence—and, it’s safe to assume, generate more misdemeanor arrests.
Reporting by Kaitlin Schuler