NYPD Quality-of-Life Crackdown Sends Thousands to Criminal Court, Undoing Landmark Reforms
A 2016 law directed police to issue civil citations for public urination, open alcohol containers and other quality-of-life violations. Then Eric Adams became mayor.
The NYPD has dramatically ramped up criminal enforcement of low-level quality-of-life violations under Mayor Eric Adams, despite a 2016 law that enabled and steered police to issue civil tickets for offenses such as public urination and open alcohol containers.
The number of criminal summonses issued for the five offenses targeted by the 2016 Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) was up fivefold in the first six months of 2023 from the same period in pre-pandemic 2019.
More than 90% of tickets where race was noted went to Black and Hispanic people — and Hispanics for the third year straight accounted for the majority of those getting criminal summonses.
Most of the criminal summonses have been issued for public drinking, where police have issued six times more criminal summonses in January through June 2023 than they did in the first half of 2019. The other offenses for which the Council encouraged civil instead of criminal summonses were public urination (up fourfold), park rules violations (up fourfold), littering (up threefold) and excessive noise (up twofold).
The renewed enforcement started last year, Adams’ first in office. In 2022 the NYPD issued more than 14,100 criminal summonses for minor offenses that were targeted by the Criminal Justice Reform Act — more than double the 2019 figure. The use of criminal summonses has become even more frequent this year.
The surge immediately followed former Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell’s March 2022 announcement of a new quality-of-life enforcement initiative aimed at reducing shootings and thefts. Public drinking and urination were among the offenses that “can be precursors to violence,” according to the NYPD’s news release at the time, which also listed drug dealing, dice games and unlicensed drivers as targets.
“These are the things that people are calling to complain about,” then-Chief of Department Kenneth Corey said, “and the NYPD owes them a response.” The NYPD vowed to target its enforcement efforts in The Bronx and eastern Brooklyn, using new Neighborhood Safety Teams.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who sponsored the Criminal Justice Reform Act while a member of the City Council, condemned the trend in an interview with THE CITY.
“There is no way you can tell me that nine out of 10 summonses going to Black and brown people is not a problem. I think there are directives to increase the numbers,” he said.
“It looks like they are trying to find reasons to engage with folks more and more. So these low-level summonses seem to be the way they’re doing it,” Williams added.
A spokesperson for the City Council, Randy Desamours, also decried the move away from the Council’s reform.
“By trending towards giving increased criminal summonses for offenses that could be addressed with a civil summons, the Police Department is going backwards,” said Desamours. “Continuing in this direction holds great potential to disrupt Black and Latino families and give many more New Yorkers criminal records.”
THE CITY sent multiple questions to the NYPD asking for comment on the surge in criminal summonses and the concerns raised by public officials and advocates. In response, a department spokesperson offered a statement without responding to questions directly.
“Quality of life complaints, which are often a precursor to violence, remain a real concern to residents in all city neighborhoods. The NYPD is always responsive to those we serve,” the statement read. “Officers who respond to these calls have enforcement options which include civil summonses, criminal summonses and arrest. If an individual is not eligible for a civil summons, such as having an active warrant or recidivist status, they are subject to a criminal court summons or arrest.”
‘The Power to Wreak Havoc’
The Criminal Justice Reform Act, which became law in June 2016, created civil ticket alternatives to criminal summonses, including the possibility of doing community service instead of paying a fine. It also directed the NYPD to issue guidance to its officers pressing them to use civil summons in incidents involving public drinking, public urination, unreasonable noise, littering, and disobeying park rules.
“The notion was that there was something heavy-handed about criminal summons for social behavior offenses,” said Elizabeth Glazer, who was the head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice when Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the law. “The criminalization of these low-level offenses seemed counterproductive. It seemed an overkill.”
Milton Perez, who lived in homeless shelters from 2014 to 2021, said he witnessed a noticeable change around the time the reforms were implemented.
He recalled that in 2016, when he lived at a Brooklyn shelter for people with mental health and substance use disorders, the police dropped by in the early morning to round up people with open summons warrants, who then stayed in jail for 24 hours. “Cops would come every few months to question me early in the morning and wake me up using their flashlights. I would develop all kinds of anxieties,” he said.
“Then one day they came and woke up folks to tell them that they were not going to arrest them this time for those offenses but they had to pay fines. Then they stopped coming in 2017,” Perez said.
For several years, the reform law worked as intended. The number of criminal summonses for the targeted offenses nosedived from 120,000 in 2016 to just a few thousand in 2019 — a decrease of 95%. Overall, the use of criminal summonses for any violations dropped by 67% between 2016 and 2019.
While a criminal summons requires a person to appear in court, a civil offense results in a fine that can be paid online, and a person can appear at a hearing by phone, conducted by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH).
And failure to appear in court can have grave consequences.
At the time the Council passed CJRA, the NYPD had 1.5 million open warrants for people who had missed past criminal summons hearings. As part of the reform push, district attorneys in every borough but Staten Island vacated nearly 700,000 outstanding arrest warrants that were 10 years or older in July 2017 under programs such as Begin Again in Brooklyn, Clean Slate in Manhattan and Another Chance in The Bronx.
Researchers at CUNY’s John Jay College estimated in 2020 that as a result of the reform, 58,000 fewer arrest warrants were issued in the 18 months from June 2017.
The trend has reversed under Adams. Not only have criminal summonses for CJRA offenses soared fivefold this year versus 2019, but civil summonses have nearly quadrupled.
Misdemeanor arrests are on the rise, too, after years of decline, state figures show.
“We have definitely seen an uptick over the last year to 18 months, an uptick in arrests and prosecutions for lower level offenses, the kinds of things that back in the day people would call it the quality of life offenses,” said Ann Mathews, managing director of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Bronx Defenders, citing subway turnstile jumping and drug offenses as examples.
Criminal summonses, Mathews said, can be “incredibly disruptive” when someone loses a day’s work to attend court, but they also “have the power to wreak havoc” if a person misses a court date, leading to an arrest warrant.
More than one in four of the 2022 criminal summonses resulted in arrest warrants, according to the New York State Office of Court Administration’s data analyzed by the Data Collaborative for Justice.
“We see frequently people who are being returned [to court] involuntarily on really old summons warrants and for what — an open container of alcohol on a Friday night sitting in front of your own building? Really,” Mathews said. “That’s the level of offense we are talking about.”
Cost of a Summons
In line with the 2016 reform law, the NYPD updated its patrol handbook to encourage officers to issue civil tickets instead of criminal summonses.
Still, the guide instructs officers to issue a criminal summons to people with two or more felony arrests in the prior two years, or who ignored three or more civil summonses, or who are on parole or probation. People with open arrest warrants must also get criminal summonses instead of civil tickets.
But in 2022 and 2023, coinciding with its announced anti-violence crackdown, the NYPD issued most criminal summonses under another, broad exemption: “a legitimate law enforcement reason.” Officers do not have to specify what that reason is.
“When the NYPD says ‘precursors to violence,’ it allows so much leeway for implicit biases of cops,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney at Legal Aid’s Cop Accountability Project. “Biases that have been baked within the system just play out in disparate enforcement.”
A Black or Hispanic person is far more likely than a white person to receive a criminal summons: the NYPD issued Black and Hispanic people criminal summonses at 10 times the rate of white people — with 33 summonses for every 10,000 Black and Hispanic residents of New York City, compared to three summonses per 10,000 white residents.
All five boroughs reported an increase in criminal summonses, but the biggest rise was in Queens where these summonses increased to 3,185 in 2023 from 250 in 2019. By far the most this year have been issued by the 110th Precinct, which covers Corona and Elmhurst — a majority of them for public drinking.
Brooklyn’s 73rd Precinct which encompasses Brownsville and Ocean Hill, the 40th Precinct in South Bronx, and the 52nd Precinct in the northern Bronx also saw especially large surges of criminal summonses issued.
In Manhattan, criminal summonses are heard either in the Midtown Community Court or at the main criminal court building on Centre Street, on the 16th floor.
On Monday morning, THE CITY spoke with a dozen of the 50 people who were waiting in the courtroom or hallway with pink tickets in hand. Almost all appeared to be people of color, and several tickets had been issued for “Open Container of Alcohol.”
Owen, 42, who was also waiting in line to pay off the ticket, said an NYPD officer spotted him drinking a can of beer in his parked car on July 9 in Brownsville and handed him an “Open Container in Vehicle” pink ticket, with a court appearance date of July 27, 2023.
He missed that court date, which would have triggered a warrant after 45 days. If he had missed his Sept. 11 hearing, a warrant would have been automatically issued in his name.
Owen, who works as a plumber, said he had to miss an entire day of work.
“I don’t want anything to do with the police. These guys are running this town. I just want to pay my ticket and go home,” he said.
Mutasim Gasi, 27, who drives an Uber, was also in court for an “Open Container of Alcohol” summons. Gasi said that the beer can was left at the back of his car by a passenger. An NYPD cop noticed it and gave him a ticket, his first, for a Sept. 11 court appearance.
“I am easily going to lose a few hours of my work today,” Gasi said.
All 15 cases observed by THE CITY were dismissed by the judge, “in the interest of justice,” after she reached court late, at 10:35 a.m., explaining that she’d been delayed by morning traffic.
Arther Saladino was the youngest, with barely a hair on his face. He was visiting New York City a few weeks ago when he drove through Grand Central on an electric scooter.
Cops caught him and wrote him a criminal summons. Saladino, a high school senior, had to drive down from his hometown, Warwick. “I didn’t know it was even an offense.”
Aman Zakaari, 23, who was ticketed for “reckless driving” when he tried to overtake another vehicle, missed his court date the first time. He was worried a warrant was out for his arrest and started asking cops in his neighborhood in Flatbush how to fix it.
“No cop seemed to know that even after missing a court date, you can still appear within 45 days before a warrant gets issued. I asked every cop in the street about it and, actually, it was these five cops in the park who told me to do a Google search.”
If Zaakari had missed court on Monday, a warrant would have gone out for him.