“We’ve been begging the cops to ticket bicyclists who violate the law,” wrote New Yorker Ed Sublette in an email to me after reading a previous article I wrote mentioning the summons. “The present traffic environment [is one where] hordes of bicyclists do any damn thing they want, [and it] has made walking down the street a daily danger… for anyone whose head doesn’t spin around 360 degrees.”
Fair enough. Yet it’s impossible to deny that tickets for bike summonses in New York, along with the quota system undergirding it, creates a situation where nonwhites have more interaction with police than other types. This is on purpose. The NYPD is governed by a strategy that demands a high rate of contact between police and people in certain neighborhoods, in order to increase police’s chances of finding people with outstanding warrants for more serious offenses. This is called broken-windows policing.
“In order for police to maintain high rates of contact with suspects, they need a pretext,” says Bernard Harcourt, a scholar who has written extensively about broken-windows policing. “That reason can be marijuana in public view, minor disorder, or turnstile jumping.” Or riding a bike on a public sidewalk.
In theory, everybody should be suspect in the dragnet of broken windows. But its logic is only deployed in places where crime is mindlessly clear-cut. There may be hundreds of thieves in lower Manhattan who regularly plunder the global economy of billions of dollars, but they’re near impossible for a beat cop to identify. In contrast, a vagrant wanted for petty theft in Brooklyn is easy to happen upon, so long as police confront him when he falls asleep on the subway.
The truth is that, like high school, broken windows is all about appearances. So long as things in your neighborhood look pristine and orderly, police are more likely to let you go on your way, while concentrating their vigilance on places that look shabbier (which often means poorer).
These thoughts were spinning around in my mind after receiving my summons. So when I went to the courthouse a few weeks later, I decided to talk with people to see why they were there.
Nearly everyone in line at the courthouse on 346 Broadway was black or Latino, which made sense: A recent investigation by the New York Daily News found these two groups are six times as likely as whites to receive summonses for minor offenses….
The history of loitering summonses in New York is ugly. At three different intervals—in 1983, 1988 and 1992—both the New York Court of Appeals and a federal court have ruled the NYPD’s issuance of such citations unconstitutional. Over and over, they have been found to repeatedly target the poor. Those rulings apparently had little effect: in 2010, Judge Shira Scheindlin with the US District Court found that the city was still meting out tickets like a hedge funder raining dollar bills at a strip club…..