Dominion of New York

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April 30, 2012

22,000 Were Arrested for It, And It Was Perfectly Legal

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Written by: Dax-Devlon Ross

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah

its wrongdoing had come at “the prodding of plaintiffs, and/or under the threat of sanctions.” And even then, Judge Scheindlin added, the absence for more than four years of the NYPD’s internal affairs bureau sent a clear message to beat cops that the disciplinary process was both “discretionary and toothless.”

After receiving Scheindlin’s orders, the parties entered months of negotiations. They worked out an agreement ensuring that enforcement ceased, that plaintiff’s criminal records would be cleared of the charges, and that plaintiffs would recoup the money they lost fighting the charges. In February, Scheindlin signed an order approving that settlement. Under it, the department agreed to pay its victims $15 million. In addition to paying this, the city has also agreed to submit to training, monitoring and continuing investigations by Internal Affairs.  Since the day Scheindlin found the NYPD in contempt,  a few officers have continued to enforced the void laws, but not many, according to Rosenfeld.


It took Scheindlin five years to find the police in contempt of court, but Rosenfeld believes the course of action she adopted throughout the case was prudent. Contempt judgments against government agencies are rare, Rosenfeld says. This is because judges prefer for the agency in question to correct its behavior independently. When agencies pay fines for breaking the law, taxpayers suffer. “She’s a rigorous person,” Rosenfeld says of the judge. “She took a common sense approach to this case.”

Nevertheless, by the time Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to pay $15 million in fines, the agency had wrongfully arrested at least 22,000 people and issued more than 13,000 summonses, according to data from the Office of Court Administration (OCA). Those arrests and summonses occurred between 1999 and 2007, the only period for which OCA had data, and therefore likely underrepresent those victimized between 1983 and 2010, the period in which the void laws were being enforced. The records also show that D.A.s from the five boroughs had sought more than 7,500 prosecutions and secured nearly 3,000 convictions, and judges had issued more than 7,000 bench warrants. African-Americans and Latinos comprised 70 and 17 percent of those arrested, 70.5 and 18 percent of those prosecuted and 75.5 and 14 percent of those issued summonses under the begging statute, between 1999 and 2009. An overwhelming number of those criminalized under the law were poor and homeless.

Jean Rice is a homelessness activist and a spokesperson for the recently formed Committees United for Police Reform (CPR), a coalition to end discriminatory policing practices. He is a 72-year-old African-American man who studied Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College before becoming homeless. Rice followed the loitering cases closely and speaks about Judge Scheindlin with glowing admiration. When I sat down with him at the Bronx office of Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded and led by homeless New Yorkers, he gave me his take on the issue. In light of the force’s “zero tolerance for street crime” Rice, a politically astute man with a dry wit pointedly asks, “Why didn’t they impose the theory internally?”

In 2008, Rice says he was peaceably “soliciting the public” on 42nd and Vanderbilt in Manhattan, when an officer with whom he was on friendly terms approached him. The cop told Rice he had orders from his higher ups to clear the streets in preparation for a visiting dignitary. Using tactics he learned at a panhandling training offered by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Rice informed the cop that he wasn’t “obligated to follow an illegal law.” He was nevertheless issued a begging summons.

The way that the criminal justice system responded to the improper charges against those like Rice is very interesting. Theoretically speaking, there were safeguards in place to prevent NYPD’s misconduct. Practically speaking, they often failed.

For example, very early on in the case, Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to remove the loitering charge from its drop down menu of possible arrest charges, Rosenfeld says. “When officers went to enter a loitering arrest [under this statute] they would get a message that they couldn’t,” she says. That should have

Correction: A previous version of this story said no more arrests or summonses have been issued since the contempt of court order. A few have, but not many.


About the Author

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross
The author of six books, Dax has been featured on WNYC, WBAI,, Democracy Now, and Pacific Radio. His work on race, youth culture and criminal justice has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. He has lectured on literature and hip-hop culture at Fordham, Pace, City College and NYU. His book, Beat of a Different Drum (Hyperion, 2006), explored the lives of 30 African-American creatives and iconolasts.