The NYPD commissioner’s “quality of life” and anti-gang enforcement agendas disproportionately hurt black and Latino New Yorkers.
On Tuesday, New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton, arguably one of the most well-known figures in American policing, announced his resignation. At a press conference, Bratton declared, “As we go forward and face the crises of race in America, crime in America, the threat of terrorism" and the divisiveness of the presidential election, he said, "there is no department that is better prepared."
But the timing of the announcement comes after a series of blows to Bratton’s reputation. Over the past few months, the NYPD has been roiled by a federal probe into allegations of corruption, implicating some of Bratton’s top brass. And a little more than a month ago, an NYPD Inspector General’s report publicly repudiated Bratton’s famous “broken windows” approach to crime prevention, finding no evidence to show that increased enforcement against “quality of life” crimes caused a decline in felonies.
Tuesday, protesters were united (at least in their disapproval of Bratton), with Black Lives Matter protesters camping out at City Hall and demanding his resignation, and New York police union members railing against the commissioner over contract negotiations.
Bratton’s term, punctuated by enormous anti-police brutality protests, comes to an end in a city where the “crises of race,” as he put it, have yet to have been solved. Critics say this is, in large part, due to the NYPD’s racially disproportionate enforcement of “quality of life crimes” and controversial “gang” raids against youth in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.
In 2013, Bill de Blasio became mayor on a campaign platform against “stop and frisk” policing—which disproportionately affected minorities—and promises of healing divisions between police and the city’s black and Latino communities. But de Blasio’s subsequent selection of Bratton to head the NYPD quickly dampened such hopes.
Bratton, who had originally introduced “stop and frisk” in the mid 1990s, immediately sought to reassert his zero-tolerance philosophy. Just three months into his new tenure, Bratton had tripled NYPD arrests of “peddlers and panhandlers” in an aggressive campaign to clear public spaces of buskers and homeless people.
Between 2001 and 2013, more than 80 percent of the 7.3 million people issued summonses for “quality of life” crimes were black or Hispanic. Despite political outcry over these disparities, Bratton used his platform as the nation’s most prominent police chief to push back against New York City Council proposals to decriminalize such petty “quality of life” crimes as public consumption of alcohol and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
While Bratton helped fulfill de Blasio’s campaign promise to dial down “stop and frisk” tactics, legal observers point out that Bratton also oversaw scores of high-profile “gang” raids across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, arresting hundreds of black and Latino teenagers for prosecution under controversial conspiracy laws.
In a statement to CityLab, NYPD Sergeant Brendan Ryan responded to claims about racial disparities in Bratton’s “quality of life” and gang-enforcement activities. “The NYPD deals with both serious crime and quality-of-life violations based on where the complaints are and where the conditions exist,” he said.
The raids have occurred in spite of the fact that gang-related crime is relatively low in New York today compared to other cities, leading some legal observers to claim increased anti-gang activity is a shield for the continuation of “stop and frisk”-style tactics. In 2012, when the NYPD’s new anti-gang operation was announced, a little more than 20 percent of all homicides in the city were gang-related; meanwhile, Chicago saw 80 percent.
By the NYPD’s own admission, most of those targeted in these “gang” operations have been young people in black and Latino “crews”—groups of neighborhood friends, not members of organized crime syndicates.
And though many of those swept up in Bratton’s gang raids have had only tenuous connections to acts of violence, the NYPD continues to identify crews as gangs—allowing prosecutors to charge loosely connected youths far more easily, thanks to the evidentiary advantages of criminal conspiracy statutes. Critics say such tactics continue the NYPD’s use of collective punishment against racial minorities, echoing criticisms of the “stop-and-frisk” era.
“There’s basically no legal difference between a ‘gang’ and a ‘crew,’” says K. Babe Howell, a criminal law professor at the City University of New York. “But we are in a world where the fruits of this gang surveillance mean 50 people are held responsible for a murder where they know who the shooter is. [Prosecutors working with police] don’t have to prove you were there, but you as a co-conspirator are facing life if you don’t take a plea.”
According to the NYPD Intelligence Division’s Gang Entry Sheet, released in 2014, New York police can identify youth as gang members by relying on criteria as broad as an individual being spotted in a known gang area, an individual’s wearing of alleged gang colors, or an individual’s association with known gang members—categories that could implicate many people growing up in poor New York neighborhoods.
In a 2014 gang-raid indictment involving more than 100 so-called gang members in Harlem, for example, the gang affiliation of two defendants was proven because one wore a chain “bearing a memorial photograph” of a “murdered fellow gang member,” and another had posted a photo of himself on Facebook with a placard dedicated to a dead friend. Of the 103 indicted in the 2014 Harlem raid, 93 plead guilty.
The Bratton era did see significant drops in “stop and frisks” and drug arrests. But Josmar Trujillo, an activist with the organization New Yorkers Against Bratton, argues that Bratton’s gang raids targeted the same people as “stop and frisk” policies did.
“Now you’re not just getting a drug dealer,” says Trujillo. “You’re getting a drug dealer who is in a ‘vicious gang.’ So that makes it a lot harder for people to advocate for that person, or say we shouldn’t have mass incarceration.”
And this shift, Trujillo argues, may have big implications for Bratton’s legacy. “Gang tactics are about mass incarceration, whereas “broken windows” was about mass criminalization,” says Trujillo. “Now they can take out people for their entire lives—and that’s going to have an immeasurable impact on neighborhoods across this city.”