NY police’s apparent slowdown creates unease in poor communities

Analysis: Community members have yet to see an increase in crime but say they feel less safe

One of the strange ironies in the feud between New York City police officers and criminal justice reform advocates is that police seem to be protesting by giving some of their opponents exactly what they want.

As tensions came to a head in recent days between New York City Police Department officers and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the number of low-level arrests and summonses carried out by police each day has sharply declined. The New York Post described the situation as a “virtual work stoppage,” interpreting it as an act of defiance against de Blasio for his perceived support for critics of the police force.

The NYPD confirmed to Al Jazeera that the numbers cited by the Post are accurate, but the department has not publicly acknowledged that the decline in arrests and summons is intentional.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the largest union representing NYPD officers, has been feuding with de Blasio since summer, when he made remarks that the union said showed hostility to the police.

Tension ratcheted up late last month when two NYPD officers sitting in their vehicle in Brooklyn were killed by a gunman who had posted vitriolic anti-police comments on social media. Several NYPD police officers turned their backs on de Blasio during funerals for the slain police officers to protest the mayor’s criticisms. 

Whatever is behind the sudden drop in arrests, it’s something that many of the police department’s critics have long called for. They decry the department’s heavy emphasis on low-level arrests, saying that strategy has disproportionately penalized people of color.

But many people of color in heavily policed neighborhoods say the slowdown is nothing to celebrate. Instead, some residents of East New York, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, told Al Jazeera the slowdown has made them feel less secure.

“With fewer police, I feel less safe. But I haven’t seen more crime,“ said Jose Rivera, 56, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

Other residents had stronger words.

“I feel like they’re risking my life,” Mahmoud Alzandani, 34, said of the police slowdown. “If they don’t want to work, they should resign.”

Police officials earlier said the drop-off in summonses and arrests could be due to a mourning period after the two officers were shot and to more officers recently being assigned to cover protests against police practices, The New York Times reported on Monday.

But many believe the slowdown is coordinated. “People are talking to each other,” the Times quoted Edward D. Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, as saying. “It became contagious.”

Still, he said crucial police services have not been affected. “All of the 911 calls are being responded to,” he told the Times. “The lack of summons activity, we’re talking about financial fines. That’s one of those things that will correct itself, I’m sure.”

Regardless of policing conditions, people in East New York have developed ways to cope with the threat of violent crime. Alzandani owns a bodega, or corner store. These stores, sometimes among the few communal meeting spots in neighborhoods without coffee shops or sit-down restaurants, can become the scenes of violent altercations. 

In order to minimize the risk, Alzandani said he and his colleagues try to maintain a “business to business” relationship with patrons, not getting too familiar or friendly. They said this lowers the chance of physical confrontation if the relationship sours. It also means fewer phone calls to the police.

“The police don’t come until after [a crime], anyway,” he said.

Some commentators and police reform advocates have theorized that the arrest slowdown would be a net positive for communities like East New York.

“By stopping so many low-level arrests and so much low-level police harassment, that may actually improve things dramatically,” Temple University historian Heather Thompson said after the slowdown began. “That’s what people have been calling for for a long time.”

But some East New York residents said they have seen little difference. Marcus Jacobs, 16, who is black, said he hasn’t noticed much of a change in the way police are patrolling. He said he always remains respectful of officers and politely submits to searches when they stop him. 

“I’ve been stopped plenty of times,” he said. “They’re doing what they’ve go to do.” 

Whether the apparent slowdown will have any effect on safety remains to be seen. A representative of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) declined to comment for this article, saying there was not enough information available to determine the consequences of the decline in arrests and summonses.

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