The debate over Broken Windows policing took a new turn last week with word that the city settled a lawsuit that challenged the NYPD over years of criminal summonsing patterns. With a settlement potentially hitting $75 million for an untold number of plaintiffs, Stinson v. City of New York highlighted an ugly reality not only about policing but also about so-called criminal justice reform in New York City: arrests aren’t the only problem. It also puts into question so-called reforms being offered by city officials to remedy the risks of undocumented immigrants ending up in hands of the deportation-minded Trump administration because of Broken Windows policing. 

From 2007 to 2015, covering both the Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio regimes, at least 900,000 summonses were dismissed because they didn’t clear legal hurdles. The validity of the summonsing clearly didn’t match the speed at which cops were dishing them out. This loose and free sanctioning, of course, happened mostly in poor communities of color. Fueling the frenzy was quality-of-life policing and the police department’s oft-denied but widely acknowledged quota system, which police brass continues to deny, despite countless stories to the contrary from retired and current cops. 

Since the death of Eric Garner, Broken Windows policing, an aggressive enforcement philosophy against quality-of-life infractions and behaviors, has come under fire. Last year, the city’s Department of Investigations released a report poking holes in the premise that low-level policing lowers serious crime. For true believers, Broken Windows saved the city from the scourge of the squeegee. For heretics, like myself and others, this zero tolerance philosophy provided the NYPD with a means to harass and criminalize poor Blacks and Latinos, subway performers, street vendors and the homeless, among others. 

The Stinson settlement backs us up.

Not only are Broken Windows encounters dangerous for people of color, such as the late Eric Garner, but also they are maintained top down through quotas, which police official sometimes refer to as “performance goals.” Enforcement data have been a hot topic as of late. A recent John Jay College study touted declining numbers, including that of arrests. However, it’s important to note that whatever the numbers, police work that is baseless or arbitrary is illegal in and of itself. Cops, for example, Stinson revealed, were writing disorderly conduct summonses for conduct they didn’t even bother to describe. I’ve been given disorderly conduct summonses in instances when cops didn’t like to be questioned as to why they were stopping me. 

This summonsing is something that wouldn’t happen in whiter, more affluent parts of the city.

For policing and criminal justice activists, Stinson is also crucial in that it exposes summonses as a distinctly punitive policing tool that hurts people of color. Calls for police “reform” in New York post-Garner have included efforts by the City Council to try to steer police away from low-level arrests and toward summonses. The Criminal Justice Reform Act, which was supported by former police commissioner Bill Bratton, the high priest of Broken Windows policing, suggested summonses were a better, more progressive path forward.

That sidesteps the criticisms about Broken Windows. Arrests, summonses and even undocumented encounters make up the destructive footprint that quality-of-life policing leaves in poor neighborhoods. A sizable piece of that is financial. For low-income New Yorkers, being handed a costly ticket is extremely damaging. Imagine a $100 summons if you hopped a turnstile because you couldn’t afford the $2.75 fare. A warrant might be in your future if you can’t pay. The long-term economic sanctioning of high-poverty city neighborhoods bleeds communities over time. This policy is no reform.

As terrible as stop and frisk was (and is), most people walked away from those encounters. New Yorkers who are summonsed are tied to the criminal justice system through a pink sheet. Pivoting to civil summonses, which Queens Council Member Rory Lancman has proposed in light of questions over Broken Windows’ potential to put undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation, often means steeper fines and community service. Worse yet is that these punishments will still be administered by the NYPD, continuing the constant contact between cops and communities of color, and leading to the possibility that this form of summonsing will be just as illegitimate and racist as their criminal summonsing, which Stinson revealed.