New Yorkers, rejoice — you will be able to drink in public in Manhattan without the fear of arrest or prosecution beginning on March 7.
The change, quietly announced by New York City officials on Tuesday, doesn't mean public drinking is now legal. Instead, public drinking, along with a slew of other low-level offenses such as public urination, littering, and various subway offenses, will now only result in court summonses rather than arrests, unless "there is a demonstrated public safety reason to do so," according to the New York County district attorney's office.
Why the change, then? "This initiative will enable the NYPD to devote its resources to investigating serious crimes, while further reducing the backlog of cases in Criminal Court," the New York County district attorney's office said in a statement. "The issuance of summonses instead of arrests is expected to result in the diversion of approximately 10,000 arrests that would be prosecuted in Manhattan Criminal Court."
More broadly, the change is part of New York City's attempt to scale back aggressive police tactics, known as "broken-windows policing," which disproportionately impacts minority New Yorkers while arguably doing little to protect public safety.
The big racial disparities in New York City's crusade against low-level offenses
Back in the 1990s, New York City adopted a law enforcement tactic widely known as "broken-windows policing." The idea was that communities would be prone to much more crime if police let petty offenses, such as people breaking windows, run amok.
The evidence on broken-windows policing's effectiveness, as my colleague Dara Lind explained, has been mixed. Some studies show it helped reduce crime. Some show it actually increased crime by inflaming residents who saw heavy-handed enforcement against petty offenses as harassment, fostering distrust toward police.
It's that last point that's particularly relevant here: Over the past few years, aggressive law enforcement tactics have come under increased scrutiny. Courts ruled against the now-reformed police tactic known as "stop and frisk" after data showed it was largely used against minority New Yorkers. Eric Garner's death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement put a new spotlight on how these tactics allowed police to target, abuse, and in some cases kill black residents in particular.
The data bore this out with these low-level offenses. According to a 2014 investigation by the New York Daily News and New York Civil Liberties Union, the number of court summonses and misdemeanor arrests dramatically increased. Based on the data that was available, about 81 percent of summons — with public drinking topping the list — went to black and Hispanic residents, even though they make up about 54 percent of New York City's population.
"The News found the correlation between race and summonses was not strong for offenses like motor vehicle violations and unlawful possession of alcohol for a minor," Sarah Ryley, Laura Bult, and Dareh Gregorian wrote for the New York Daily News. "But others — like spitting, disorderly conduct, loitering, open container and failure to have a dog license — were more likely to be doled out in predominately black and Hispanic precincts."
(One caveat: The data includes some low-level offenses that will still be prosecuted under Manhattan's changes, including disorderly conduct and trespassing.)
Other investigations have validated these findings. In a review of a month's worth of public drinking tickets in Brooklyn, a New York City judge's staff in 2012 found that, as reported by the New York Times, "85 percent of the summonses were issued to blacks and Latinos, while only 4 percent were issued to whites" — even though 36 percent of Brooklyn's population is white.
So among the roughly 10,000 people New York City arrested in Manhattan each year for low-level offenses, there's a good chance a disproportionate number were black and Hispanic.
These kinds of statistics fueled distrust toward police, making officers' jobs a lot harder and leading to tremendous protests like those led by the Black Lives Matter movement over the past couple of years. So New York officials decided to make serious changes — you can now drink in public in Manhattan without the fear of arrest.