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Struggling is not a crime

Council Member Robert Cornegy | 8/28/2014, 11:05 a.m.
Brooklyn City Council Member Robert Cornegy share's his thoughts about policing.
Robert E. Cornegy

I grew up as a preacher’s kid, and the lessons I learned in my father’s church are still with me. An important one is that we should sweep around our own front doors before we try to sweep around anyone else’s. So at this moment, when much of the attention of America is rightly trained on the actions of the police in Ferguson, Mo., I feel compelled to speak out about a problem here at home.

In recent weeks, I’ve heard story after story about the NYPD using their current version of “broken windows” policing to justify interference with behavior that is not criminal. I’m increasingly troubled that New Yorkers who are staying on the right side of the law while struggling to get by are being criminalized.

For example, MTA rules explicitly permit artistic performance on subway platforms within certain safety-related limits, even when performers solicit tips. So why are performers coming together through groups like BuskNY to report police harassment, groundless ticketing and even arrest?

Similarly, earlier this month, police began informing tourists in Times Square that they are not required to tip the New Yorkers who pose there in costume. Of course, this is true, but the police are not targeting other industries in which low-paid workers rely on tips. Rather, they’re interfering with the livelihoods of some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, many of whom are recent immigrants, with limited language skills. They don’t deserve to be vilified for working independently on the fringes of the tourist economy to support themselves and their families in this expensive city. Such widespread interference with legal behavior cannot be justified by citing the misbehavior of a few bad apples. That reasoning smacks of profiling and has no place in our progressive city.

Likewise, I’m disturbed because despite the fact that subway dancing has not resulted in a single reported injury, the young men of color who engage in these performances are being charged with the misdemeanor crime of reckless endangerment. One young man told of being held in jail for three days, when under MTA rules concerning disorderly conduct―a violation and not a crime―he could have received a $25 ticket. I’d far rather live in a city that helps our youth develop their talents and business savvy than one that harms their spirits and future prospects by arresting them for doing what they love.

Commissioner William Bratton has argued that “broken windows” policing is an effective means of intercepting individuals who may be wanted for, or are likely to engage in, more serious crimes. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t think there’s any argument to be made in defense of policing strategies that target legal behavior. As the death of Eric Garner shows, arrests have serious consequences for arrestees, police officers and our criminal justice system. They should never be used, and certainly not systematically, to interfere with legal behavior that some may find unappealing.

As chair of the City Council’s Committee on Small Business and the representative of a majority minority district, I can’t just stand by while vulnerable New Yorkers engaged in the informal economy are criminalized. Let’s connect hard-working, enterprising residents to greater opportunity, not punish them for struggling to get by.

Robert E. Cornegy Jr. represents the 36th District in the New York City Council.