Welcome to the third edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter! I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and our goal is to bring you some coverage of the upcoming municipal primaries from the perspective of constituencies and communities.
The city is staring down an economic crisis that reminds many New Yorkers of the dark days of the late ’70s and ’80s. That has invited concern and led to spirited discussion of the city’s approach to criminal justice and safety. On one hand: the abject failure of the stop-and-frisk policy and the widespread acceptance that heavy-handed policing destroys lives and communities. On the other: the desire of many New Yorkers to feel protected from the specter of desperation-driven crime.
Voting in New York City can be confusing. Did you know you have to register with a party before you can vote in its primary, or that this year will feature the first round of ranked-choice voting, where you can select an order of candidates by preference? For more guidance and resources, see here:
This is a two-part series; today, we will break down some salient criminal justice issues being discussed now. For next week, we want to hear from you, our readers. Please send thoughts, responses, and questions to NYCelections@url-media.com. We will try to send queries to the candidates for Manhattan District Attorney, one of this year’s significant, but under-covered races.
Do you have any topics you want us to focus on or questions you want this newsletter to answer? We’d love to hear from you! Reach us at NYCelections@url-media.com
Shootings and murders are up around the city. (There’s no evidence this is related to recent reforms such as constraints on use of bail.)
No serious Democratic primary candidates for mayor are advocating anything like former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s stop-and-frisk policy (declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2013) or any harsh policy response. They do vary in how to balance public safety with community concerns. On the Republican side, there is predictably more openness to a “broken windows” vision of law enforcement, where policing targets minor crimes such as vandalism, loitering, jaywalking and turnstile jumping.
There are a few specific areas of debate when it comes to public safety, breaking down along enforcement, prosecution and post-conviction.
Enforcement in public transit
Gadfly Republican mayoral candidate and radio host Curtis Sliwa spent last week ranting about subway crime (incidentally, while not wearing a mask on the N train). The issue of safety on the subway remains salient even as ridership has yet to climb to pre-pandemic levels. It hit 2 million daily riders on April 8, the highest since the pandemic started, but still far below 2019’s average of 5.5 million weekday rides. The underground transit system funnels a lot of people into close proximity to each other. It also provides a de facto measure of shelter for homeless people. For some observers, this creates the perception of danger for the homeless and those who encounter them on their commutes. A few recent subway crimes, like unprovoked slashings, have also commanded outsize coverage and fed the perception that there is danger lurking around every tunnel corner. This has led to calls for increased police patrols in the subways. But this increases the risk of the type of indiscriminate quality-of-life enforcement (loitering, possession of small quantities of drugs) that can hugely impact the lives of young people of color. Turnstile-jumping arrests, for example, largely affect only neighborhoods of color and can cause cascading impacts, including putting undocumented people on the path to deportation.
After an arrest is made, the district attorney’s office decides if and what charges to bring. To an extent, prosecutorial decision making also helps drive police actions in the first place, as cops stop arresting people they know the DA won’t prosecute. While there’s a tendency to focus on the enforcement side of things, how prosecutors decide to exercise their considerable discretion makes a huge difference. For example, whether someone who commits an offence will be booked into jail and risk losing his job or other major consequences, or be ticketed and released, have charges dismissed, or at least be given the option of pleading to a more minor charge has no hard and fast rule. New York State’s recent legalization of the use of recreational marijuana has closed the chapter on one of the more contentious questions of discretion, but there are others, like the aforementioned turnstile-jumping.
Of course, the appropriate deployment of police resources is also broadly being debated about what, and how extensive, those resources should be. The latest dust-up in the battle over police funding has been outrage over the NYPD’s deployment of a robot dog, prompting the City Council to issue a subpoena to try to determine its cost. This is a perfect example of the public discussion in that it’s both about how much money the NYPD gets in a given year (about $10.2 billion for fiscal year 2021, or over 10 percent of the total city budget), and how it uses this money. This year, about $4.9 billion is going to operational expenses and another $5.3 billion to central expenses, such as pensions. The conversation has also centered on re-allocating funds to recruiting in communities of color and de-escalation training.
Though the notion of “defunding” the police has been widely echoed on the streets among the legions of protestors, its nuance tends to be poorly understood. No, it does not necessarily mean getting rid of police departments altogether. It could mean redistribution of funds within the department to better serve the community’s needs. Some proponents want the NYPD to be more closely monitored for wasteful spending and to cut down abuse, like spiraling overtime costs and what they deem to be useless technology. Others want more fundamental changes like reducing headcount and utilizing other emergency response personnel for some of the NYPD’s current functions, like mental-health calls for people in emotional distress. A pilot program that started in some Northern Manhattan neighborhoods in February and has had success in other municipalities).
Elizabeth Planas, who moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx and has lived in the borough for about 30 years, said that she had been feeling unsafe not because of a perceived increase in crime. She describes it more as “the police not doing what they need to do, and the police’s discrimination against Hispanic people and Black people.” She also said she believed that the use of mental-health professionals instead of police officers should be expanded, expressing frustration at stories of cops tasering people in emotional crises. As an avid user of public transit, she said it was “the distancing, and people not listening” to the recommended safety guidelines that presented the biggest problem, not any specter of crime.
For his part, Jaime Ruano, a 41-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who lives in the Bronx and works in Queens as a cleaner, would like to see more cops out on the streets. “I heard about the Asian people who are being attacked a lot, and in general anyone can be attacked. People get pushed onto train tracks, there are people who’ve died,” he said while waiting for the downtown D train at the Fordham Road station. While he acknowledged that there are tensions between the community and the police, he believes more aggressive recruiting in Black and Latino neighborhoods could be an answer. “I think it’s really the white cops that are more racist,” he said.
The decision by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance not to run for reelection has left the office open, and so far eight Democrats have jumped into the primary race (there is also one Republican who will run against the winner of that contest). Most of them have focused on promises of reform, including not prosecuting certain crimes and creating diversion programs for people suffering from drug problems, for example. A notable exception is the more conservative Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who has pledged to ramp up gun prosecutions. Here is a good primer.
Again, we want to hear from you about these issues. We may feature some of your voices next week, and any questions about prosecution in particular can be posed to the Manhattan DA candidates!