NYT: New York City Police Officers Told to Relax Stance on Petty Offenses
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 14, 2017

Tina Luongo was quoted in the New York Times on the city's new policy directing the NYPD to issue civil tickets instead of criminal summonses for low-level offenses.




The New York Times
New York City Police Officers Told to Relax Stance on Petty Offenses
By J. David Goodman and Benjamin Mueller
June 13, 2017

After years of public debate and months of negotiations, New York City began directing its police officers on Tuesday to issue civil tickets rather than criminal summonses for petty offenses such as public drinking and public urination.

In a city that pioneered tough enforcement for low-level crimes, often referred to as broken-windows policing, the changes represented a rare instance of legislative police reform and a recognition of the burden that style of enforcement imposed on residents.

The new approach, hailed by civil libertarians and police reform advocates even as they expressed reservations, was the culmination of an effort by the council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito. Known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, the package of bills that passed last year created a new civil system for handling minor offenses that in the past often resulted in open warrants and the possibility of arrests for a disproportionate number of minority New Yorkers.

“We’re talking about trying to create a more fair system,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said on Tuesday. “When we’re talking about being in a park after dark, urinating in public, yes, they’re a nuisance, and people don’t like it, but why should someone’s life be impacted by having a permanent criminal record.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the legislation last June, presenting it as a balance between reform and public safety. The mayor has remained committed to the broken-windows style of policing even as reform advocates have urged him to move away from it.

Ms. Mark-Viverito began talks over the changes in 2015, with proponents heralding the proposal as an important criminal justice reform and critics warning that the more lenient approach would result in a decline in public order.

The law did not eliminate criminal penalties for the infractions but required officers to employ the civil summons as the default approach for select minor offenses under the administrative code: spitting, littering, public urination, open container of alcohol, excessive noise and violations of park rules, all of which had been misdemeanor offenses.

The Council gave the Police Department a year before the law went into effect on Tuesday to come up with guidelines for when officers might decide to charge someone with a criminal offense. Over the last few weeks, officers and commanders have been briefed on the coming changes; the department’s internal rule book was updated on Monday.

“Today marks a new day in how minor infractions are enforced while preserving the tools law enforcement needs to appropriately address them,” a spokesman for the mayor, Austin Finan, said in a statement. Under Mr. de Blasio, crime has remained at or near record lows while arrests and summonses have declined.

The Police Department stuck to the original timeline despite calls in recent months to accelerate the rollout of the new guidelines, seen by some as a way to protect immigrants living in New York illegally from deportation amid aggressive new policies from the Trump administration.

The department’s new rules lay out exceptions: Officers will not give a new civil summons to someone who has “three or more unanswered civil summonses” in the past eight years. The civil option would also not be used if the person has two or more felony arrests in the last two years or is on parole or probation. (The city developed a system to help officers keep track of civil offense recidivists.)

“In the exceptions, you can see lurking the administration’s unwillingness to let go of the broken-windows strategy that disproportionately affects communities of color,” said Councilman Rory Lancman, who has advocated deeper reforms. But he added that the new civil process was “a big step.”

At a briefing on Tuesday, Inspector Thomas Taffe, of the police commissioner’s office, said the new guidelines were consistent with broken-windows policing, and that he was confident they would not cause upticks in crime.

“The whole issue is that we don’t ignore the problem,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s going to affect crime in any way.”

The city estimates that about 100,000 people each year will be diverted from the criminal court and into a civil process run by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.

As of March, the agency had 245 full-time employees, an increase of seven people from last year, according to figures provided by the Independent Budget Office. The budget calls for 315 full-time positions and $9.3 million more in spending, an increase of nearly 25 percent since last fiscal year. (That does not include the hearing officers, who are part time, the agency said.)

Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society, agreed that the changes were “a good step forward.” But she said results will depend on the training supervisors give and the discretion officers use.

She added that many of Legal Aid’s clients, particularly homeless people, have criminal histories that would make them ineligible for a civil summons under the guidelines.

The administrative trials agency already handles thousands of police summonses for offenses such as littering or obstructing a fire hydrant. Summonses can be paid online, and they can be contested that way as well, or by phone.

In order to receive a civil summons, a person must produce identification. That can include the city’s municipal identification, which is available to undocumented immigrants. If identification is not possible, officers will bring the person to a station house where an arrest can take place.

“The proof will be in the data,” said Donna Lieberman, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, saying her group will be tracking how officers use the new option. “I think this law is a step away from broken-windows policing for sure.”



This article originally appeared in The New York Times.