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The NYPD “slowdown” that’s cut arrests in New York by half, explained

Police are turning their backs on New York's mayor — and on many (mostly minor) crimes.
Police are turning their backs on New York's mayor — and on many (mostly minor) crimes.
Joe Marino/New York Daily News via Getty

New York City police have all but stopped writing traffic tickets. They've all but stopped issuing court summonses for minor crimes. And they've only made half as many arrests as they did last year.

It certainly looks like police have been deliberately engaging in a "work slowdown" to strike back at New York City's mayor, Bill de Blasio, over the last few weeks. But how did a fight between the mayor and police union officials turn into a partial shutdown of the city's law enforcement? And how is it affecting crime? Here's what you need to know.

1) Why did police stop making arrests?

New York police feel that they're under attack — and they feel that Mayor de Blasio isn't on their side. They feel targeted by the protests that have persisted in the city after the killing of Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in July 2014, and a grand jury's decision in December not to indict Pantaleo. They feel that protesters, civil rights leaders, and the media are egging on violence against police and are therefore partly responsible for the murders of two NYPD officers in December.

Eric Garner protest

Police feel protesters against "killer cops" encouraged a cop killer. (Stan Honda/AFP)

And they feel that the city's mayor has been egging on their enemies. In particular, police were angered by comments de Blasio made in early December, after the grand jury decision in Pantaleo's case. He said that he had to worry that his teenage son, Dante (who is mixed-race), was safe each night — "not just from (crime and violence) but from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors." But police have distrusted de Blasio since before he was elected mayor — much of his campaign was built on ending the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy, a policy that led, evidence indicates, to widespread profiling of young black and Latino men.

2) How long has the slowdown been going on?

The slowdown started the week of December 22.

Tension between de Blasio and police officers was mounting throughout December, in the wake of the grand-jury decision and de Blasio's comments. But the issue didn't boil over until December 20, when Ismayyil Bradley executed officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos through the windows of their car. Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association (one of the five unions that represents NYPD officers), said that there was "blood on the hands" of the mayor for the murders.

police protest de blasio

Police turn their backs on Mayor de Blasio during the funeral of Wenjian Liu. (Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News via Getty)

When de Blasio spoke at Ramos' funeral, thousands of police officers turned their backs on him. A few days later, the New York Post (which is well-sourced among police officers)  reported news of the slowdown. The Post used crime stats from the week of December 22 — two days after Liu and Ramos were killed — to show that arrests were down 60 percent from the same period the previous year. (In the second week of the slowdown, arrests were down only 56 percent from the last year.)

3) Who's behind the slowdown?

The night Ramos and Liu were killed, according to the New York Post, an email "was widely circulated" among officers telling them that "at least two units (should) respond to EVERY call." The email also instructed officers not to make arrests or issue summonses "unless absolutely necessary." The email was attributed to the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association — the police union whose head had accused de Blasio of having blood on his hands.

The PBA denied that it sent the email, and other police union leaders told the New York Times that the effort came about spontaneously from officers themselves. However, police officers appear to believe that the call for the slowdown came from the PBA — one officer who spoke to the Post said that "the call last week from the PBA is what started it."

police union head

Did Patrick Lynch and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association call for the slowdown? (Andrew Theodorakis/Getty)

The email said that "these are precautions that were taken in the 1970s when police officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis." But the officers who spoke to the Post also interpreted it as a way to encourage police officers not to do more than is required — and told the Post that, given dissatisfaction with de Blasio, "this has been simmering for a long time."

NYPD leadership is not pleased. Police commissioner Bill Bratton said on January 5 that he wasn't yet sure it was appropriate to say officers were conducting a deliberate "slowdown," but that if the arrest drop really is because police are doing less work "we will deal with it very forcefully." The department is currently doing a "comprehensive review" to monitor what officers are doing on a squad-car-by-squad-car level, to determine whether or not there's a deliberate slowdown.

4) What laws are cops actually enforcing? Which ones aren't they?

Police don't appear to be following a specific policy here. The only instruction that's been publicly disclosed was the December 21 email to make arrests "only when necessary." The data suggests that while enforcement is down across the board, the slowdown is mostly showing up in enforcement of minor crimes and offenses.

Transit police, who police the subways, are making very few arrests. That covers arrests for jumping turnstiles (there were only 3 arrests for fare-jumping last week, as opposed to 400 a year ago), but also for narcotics and weapons. It appears that the division responsible for policing public housing projects has also cut its arrests drastically. Over a third of the drop in arrests comes from decreases in those two categories alone.

Major felony arrests, however, are down only 17 percent from last year. And even within transit, for example, some more serious crimes are being policed more. Robbery arrests on subways were down only 25 percent from last year, while turnstile-jumping arrests were down over 99 percent.

There are also indications that police have been "slowing down" less as the slowdown goes on. Arrests increased 31 percent from the first week of the shutdown to its second. And according to the New York Times, NYPD officers made twice as many arrests for narcotics in the week of December 29, the second week of the slowdown, as they had the first week.

The most dramatic enforcement slowdown is in citations or summonses, rather than actual arrests. Ninety-three percent fewer parking tickets were issued the week of December 29, compared to the previous year. And court summonses for low-level crimes, like public drunkenness or urination, were down 92 percent.

There might be other factors going into the dramatic drop in arrests. Bratton, the police commissioner, said on January 5 that the number of 911 calls had also declined "fairly dramatically" over this period.

5) What is the point of the slowdown?

There are three main reasons that police might be engaging in a slowdown.

Safety: The phrasing of the original email, with its references to the 1970s, implies that the slowdown is designed to protect officers' safety. In particular, the instruction to have two units respond to every call would give police "strength in numbers."

However, it's not clear that this has actually protected officers. On January 5, two plainclothes NYPD officers were shot while tracking down a robbery suspect. (Both officers are in critical but stable condition as of the morning of January 6.) The officers had been part of a team of five officers that had responded to the call about the robbery, meaning they were following the PBA instruction to have "two units" respond to every call. Despite the presence of extra officers, the gunman escaped after the shooting.

cops shot crime scene

The crime scene where two officers were shot on January 5th. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Public relations. Some police are characterizing the slowdown as a way to pacify residents who've been upset with police since Eric Garner's killing. One union official told the New York Times, "We're being very cautious. We don't want to enrage the public."

But the slowdown is generally being seen as a way to express anger with de Blasio — and to send him a message that the mayor needs the police more than they need the mayor's support. The slowdown, as well as officers' turning their backs on de Blasio during the funerals of the murdered officers, have led some in the city (including former mayor Rudy Giuliani) to conclude that Mayor de Blasio needs to treat the police with more respect if he wants to keep his city safe.

But not everyone supports the slowdown. The editorial board of the New York Daily News — which is generally supportive of police — blamed the leaders of two police unions (including Patrick Lynch) for "imperiling New Yorkers" by encouraging the slowdown.

Revenue. One reason that the slowdown has cut down on traffic tickets and low-level summons so much more than arrests is because tickets are a major source of city revenue. New York City's Independent Budget Office estimates that in 2014, parking fines generated $10.5 million for the city every week — totaling over half a billion dollars in revenue for the year. With parking citations down 93 percent in the first week of 2015, the city's lost millions of dollars already due to the slowdown. Police likely see this as another way to remind de Blasio, and other city elected officials, how important the NYPD is to the functioning of New York — and a way to give de Blasio a reason to want to patch up his relationship with the police as quickly as possible.

nypd parking ticket

These things make millions of dollars a week. (Mike Albans/New York Daily News Archive via Getty)

6) What do NYPD officers want?

It's not clear. Because no organization or union is officially taking credit for the slowdown, no one's issued demands or requests to negotiate for it to end.

On the day after the first report of a drop in arrests, Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton held an "emergency summit" with the heads of the five unions that represent NYPD officers. (There are separate unions for officers based on rank: patrolmen, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and detectives.)

The summit doesn't appear to have resolved anything. Comments from people who were in the meeting, presumably union executives, imply that police might have been looking for an apology for de Blasio's comments from December about fearing for his son's safety — but that police believe "he's not going to apologize."

7) Why haven't police been fired for not doing their jobs?

For one thing, the NYPD's leadership hasn't officially called this a slowdown yet. Commissioner Bratton's comments on January 5 indicated that the department wants to collect as much evidence as possible before accusing police of deliberately neglecting their jobs. Once that happens, however, Bratton implied that responsible officers would be disciplined.

bill bratton

Commissioner Bratton isn't calling it a slowdown...yet. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

It's likely that if the NYPD tries to take any action against police for the slowdown, the unions will step in on officers' behalf. Even though union officials are claiming they didn't order the slowdown, they could frame this as a matter of officer safety. And given the track record police unions have in protecting their members, that would make it unlikely that anyone gets fired over this.

8) What effect has the shutdown had on crime?

All of this is happening as New York has had one of its safest years in several decades. Crime dropped 4.6 percent from 2013 to 2014, and the city had the fewest murders since it started keeping track — in 1963. That broader trend is much more well-established than week-to-week fluctuations, so it's important not to put too much stock in the numbers for the last two weeks.

That said, it appears that crime over the two weeks of the shutdown is lower than it was in 2013-14 (with one exception: there were slightly more robberies the week of December 29 than there were the previous year). However, major crime rates rose from the week of Christmas to the week of New Year's — while they'd dropped from one week to the next last year.

It's possible that the rise in crime is due to broader awareness of the slowdown (though violent crime arrests aren't dropping as much as arrests for other crimes).

However, for many, the bottom line is that there hasn't been a drastic increase — that a 55 percent drop in arrests hasn't led to a 55 percent increase in crime.

9) Does this mean that "Broken Windows" policing is debunked? (And what is that, anyway?)

While New Yorkers were protesting the NYPD in 2014 over its use of force, they've been protesting for years over the city's (now largely defunct) "stop and frisk" policy.

"Stop and frisk" was one manifestation of a decades-long NYPD policy of proactive policing — trying to intercept people who might become criminals before they commit crimes. Another part of that policy has been "broken windows" policing, which was first tried in NYPD under Mayor Giuliani in the 1990s. The city is considered the poster child for the policy.

broken windows protest

"Broken Windows" is still a flashpoint for activists. (Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency via Getty)

Under "broken windows," the NYPD made a point of prosecuting low-level "quality of life" offenses in high-crime neighborhoods — exactly the sort of crimes they're not issuing summonses for now. The theory behind "broken windows" was that a zero-tolerance attitude toward crime would deter minor criminals from turning into violent ones, and that cracking down on public urination and graffiti would rapidly make high-crime neighborhoods safer and more attractive places to live.

Many critics of the NYPD are taking the fact that crime hasn't exploded during the shutdown as proof that "broken windows" doesn't work. (Academic literature shows its effects are mixed.) But residents of East New York, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, told Al Jazeera that even though they haven't witnessed more crime during the slowdown, having fewer police in their neighborhoods makes them feel less safe.

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