“Cops Are Basically Revenue Collectors”

We need the police, absolutely, of course. At the same time, it’s only thanks to the NYPD’s recent rebellion against the city’s new progressive mayor Bill de Blasio — after he hurt their feelings by implying that #BlackLivesMatter — that many of us began to wonder whether we need them as much as, and for the same reasons that, we thought. According to the Daily News:

The number of summonses issued citywide dropped 94% for the week ending Dec. 29, records show. That trend continued with a 92% dip for the week ending Jan. 4. Arrests were down 66% during the last two weeks of 2014.

Fewer arrests! Way fewer summonses! Did we become less safe, as a city? Did murders rise and tourism dip? Or did the NYPD accidentally reveal that one of its primary mandates has little to do with general well-being and much more to do with raising money for the city at the expense of its most vulnerable? Gothamist crunches the numbers.

In 2013, the most recent year available, New York City Criminal Courts collected more than $20 million in revenue from fines and summonses [PDF]. After assault, the second most-common charge at arraignment for misdemeanor arrests was turnstile jumping, followed by marijuana possession. And these are the charges that actually stick — nearly half don’t.

Don’t incarcerate the pot smokers! I feel safer with them bumbling around, cracking jokes and feeling groovy. Incarcerate the drunkards stumbling out of bars at 3:00 AM and looking for a fight. They’re the ones I’m scared of.

Also, I’m not saying turnstile jumping is a fair response to subway rides costing $2.50 each, but it’s at least as understandable as illegally downloading Frozen to pacify your screaming toddler who needs to watch it RIGHT NOW.

What else are we paying for an aggressive police force to take on?

The most common summons by a statistical mile is a violation for an open container of alcohol (nearly 120,000 summonses issued), followed by disorderly conduct, littering, and bicycling on the sidewalk (reckless driving is twelfth, behind “offensive matter in street/public place”). More money is collected from fines from arrests related to these petty violations than DWI fines (though there are other surcharges related to DWI).

Over the past decade, New York has also increased its surcharge fees for misdemeanor convictions from $140 to $200, and for convictions of a violation from $75 to $120 [PDF]. Around half of the courts’ total income goes back into the City coffers.

Defendants who can’t afford to pay fees face possible incarceration.

In other words, we’re paying to prop up a system wherein people picked up for petty offenses accumulate first fines and then overwhelming, life-altering debts, which was documented by Sarah Stillman at the New Yorker.

John Oliver dealt with a similar issue on his show “Last Week Tonight” on civil forfeiture or, as one interviewee calls it, “legalized robbery,” which you can watch below.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.