URBAN AGENDA: 'Broken Windows' Policing at the Turnstile

David R. Jones | 10/19/2017, midnight
In a welcome development this week, the New York City Council held public hearings on a bill that would require ...
David R. Jones Contributed

In a welcome development this week, the New York City Council held public hearings on a bill that would require the NYPD to publish quarterly data about fare evasion arrests – a policing strategy desperately in need of greater scrutiny.

The numbers don’t lie. Fare evasion enforcement is unduly focused on people of color in low-income neighborhoods, police statistics show, highlighting a cynical campaign that is a remnant of the Giuliani administration’s “broken windows” policing strategy.

On average, a staggering one of every four NYPD arrests in recent years involved charges of fare beating, according to police statistics. In the first quarter of this year, 4,624 such arrests were made, putting the city on pace to matching the 30,000 arrested last year. Fully 90 percent of those arrested were people of color, including two 15-year-olds and one person over age 70.

In 2016, police stopped more than 140,000 people for jumping the turnstile. The city spends upwards of $50 million annually to arrest, prosecute and issue summons to low-income fare beaters -- an enormous amount of resources for a non-violent crime. And when you combine aggressive farebeating enforcement with unaffordable transit fares, you create a scenario in which thousands of people – most of them poor and most of them black and Latino – are being dragged through the criminal justice system.

The city’s current approach to fare evasion enforcement amounts to de facto criminalization of poverty. It prompted us to take a closer look at the effect these policies were having on communities, particularly low-income neighborhoods. The end result was a report we released this week, “The Crime of Being Short $2.75” which examined the frequency of fare evasion arrests at subway stations in Brooklyn in relation to other factors such as neighborhood demographics, poverty rates and criminal complaints. The findings paint a stark picture of racial inequality.

Not surprisingly, our researchers found that higher arrest rates tended to be at subway stops in poor neighborhoods. But what was striking was this: fare evasion arrest rates at subway stations in neighborhoods with the largest numbers of black residents living in poverty were seven to 35 times as high as at stations in neighborhoods with comparable numbers of Latinos living in poverty. These lower-arrest stations are located in areas with rates of criminal complaints that are similar to or even higher than those at the high-arrest stations. In other words, socio-economic patterns don’t explain the racial disparity in arrest rates.

Instead of spending city funds to target poor people of color for arrests at the turnstile, we should be redirecting these city resources towards policing more serious crimes and consider ways we can reduce arrests and encounters with the criminal justice system. Acknowledging that arrests have life-long consequences limiting a person’s employment, housing and educational opportunities, some have taken progressive steps to put the brakes on the over-prosecuting of non-violent crimes. Last June, District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced that people arrested for fare evasion in Manhattan would no longer face automatic criminal prosecution. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has indicated his office is considering a similar policy that may include issuing summons to first time offenders and diverting others to a desk appearance and mandatory community service. This is welcome news, and we hope that District Attorneys in the city’s other three boroughs follow suit.